I was told that early on in my career. All I wanted was a chance to draft. I graduated from drafting school with A's and already had a fair amount of industry experience, yet it took me almost 4 years to get recognized because it took that long to get a break. I was then an instant hit, and even though I still wasn't granted a professional listing as a Set Designer, I managed to keep myself busy enough as one from gig to gig for over a decade.
Making the break is the hardest part. Not only because you need to convince those in power that you are good at a job that you have never been paid to do, but you are in a competitive mindset.
The factory system that is film production on a large scale, is a toxic environment to advance in. If you are good at your trade, and you are making a good living, and you have no desire to apply for the PD or Art Director position, all may be very well for you. As soon as you are apparently making your way up, you are entering into crab bucket mentality. Crab bucket mentality happens when you put a bunch of crabs in a bucket; they pull each other's legs off trying to get out.
I went from being popular, as an Art Dept Assistant, to being unpopular, as an emerging Set Designer, to being popular as an established Set Designer to being unpopular again when I became unable to do repetitive tasks all day and decided it was time to focus on advancing to a career in napkin drawing.
I remembered the early advice. I felt like I needed to stay, but I felt so unsupported by my peers. No one would recomend me in the Art Dept. Yet I was always working. I felt indispensable, yet trapped.
Years later I took the advice. I now have doors opening that would never have opened had I remained in the factory environment. I'm broke. Im free to grow. I can see the light. I may very well be back there one day. I know it will take years, but I believe its my destiny to keep going.
We each have a unique path in film. Mine is now doing Indies and building a reel. Many start out doing what I am now doing 17 years into my career. I am doing it all backwards. There is tremendous value in gaining experience in both film environments; indies and factory.
Without the Indie experience I am now getting, I would have only had half the experience I will need.
Without references, though, its still almost impossible to get the break. Pro-Bono gigs are a dime a dozen. But the paid gigs are the ones with clout.
If you are good at your job chances are you need to look outside your Department for references. Chances are that if you have a steady track record, if the Department Keys love working with you, you can probably recruit some very strong references.
It's called Playing The Game. Its different for everyone. Its never impossible.