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Nathan Pearson-Smith

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Volunteering: Starting from the bottom


After a couple of great features covering apprenticeships and work placements, Nathan Pearson-Smith asks, could you volunteer?
In late August, the Government announced a three-month volunteering program aimed at 18- to 24-year-olds who have worked for less than six months. The unpaid work scheme for young Londoners, which Boris Johnson has campaigned for, will require 18- to 24-year-olds to do 13 weeks' unpaid work as a condition of claiming their £56 a week benefit. Under the scheme, benefit claimants will work at charities or businesses that provide a 'community benefit'.
The announcement was something that was expected but still caused widespread debate and criticism amongst the public. The work placements will include practical support such as CV writing and interview skills to help young people into employment.
I'll be looking at the benefits of volunteering and what it can do for your career prospects, regardless of where you are in your career stage. Who volunteering benefits most, employer or volunteer? I'll also be looking at the potential barriers to volunteering and why there's a general unwillingness to work for free.
Professionals that are looking to break into a new industry should use volunteering as a platform to use the skills they've learnt in their previous job roles. In a time of economic uncertainty, with a jobs market that's only beginning to find its feet again, young people who are just starting out in their careers should see volunteering as a chance to impress employers and show what they can do.
"In a time of economic uncertainty young people who are just starting out in their careers should see volunteering as a chance to impress employers and show what they can do."
Focusing on the volunteer: how long should someone volunteer for to get the experience they need and when does volunteering become exploitation? Three months is a sufficient enough time for both employee and employer to know if the arrangement is working for both parties.
If there isn't the opportunity to pay the volunteer's travel and/or expenses then some sort of programme scheme should be in place to develop that individual's skills and attributes. With any form of training there should be a learning and development aspect involved so that the volunteer is richer for the experience.
There's a danger that employers hire volunteers because they feel a moral obligation to be of assistance because that person is struggling to find a job. Bring someone into your business because it's warranted and because it will be a benefit to both parties and there's a chance for further development, not because jobs are hard to find and you need someone to stack shelves.
There's a recruitment advantage for employers to explore if they take on a volunteer. There's an opportunity to recruit another staff member without the hassle of going through the usual recruitment methods - a forward thinking way towards future recruitment, especially for roles that aren't immediately available but will be in future. For example, open up a vacancy, instruct that all candidates must conduct a month's work of volunteering as part of the recruitment process - whilst you pay for their travel costs. All candidates compete for the same position on a month's trial and it's a chance for the employer to see how each volunteer operates in their business before the candidates are shortlisted and the successful volunteer then moves on to secure a paid role job. At least then there's evidence of progression and development that the unsuccessful volunteers can demonstrate to other recruiters.
It seems that the drawbacks of volunteering are far outweighing the positive benefits for young people. Yes, volunteering isn't cheap in the short term, especially as it's very difficult to find an organisation that is willing to pay for your travel and food expenses whilst you volunteer with them. However, this shouldn't affect your desirability to volunteer.
There is no disputing that nobody wants to work for free - that goes without saying. We all have a value in our head that we think we're worth and regardless of the role we're applying for we need to see that worth reflected in our pay. With that said it's important to see past the initial shortfall of financial benefit volunteering offers, and recognise the mid- to long-term career benefits volunteering gives you that will stand you in good stead in future and give you a platform to build from.

Nathan Pearson-Smith is apprenticeship ambassador for Youth Connexions. You can follow him on Twitter here


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