Should unemployed people consider volunteering? Will it help them get a new job? The widely accepted view among voluntary organisations, policy makers, the general public and often the jobless themselves is that volunteering can have a positive impact in the search for re-employment.
The short answer is ‘it depends’. Research evidence shows the bigger picture is complex: the relationships between volunteering and getting a job are not as straightforward as many people assume. However, volunteering during unemployment brings many personal and social benefits, even if it does not lead to paid work.
Several studies show that volunteering enhances the personal skillset, attitudes and knowledge that can potentially help jobseekers in the labour market. However, as research conducted by the Third Sector Research team suggests, the effects of volunteering on employment outcomes are weak. Other factors come into play: the frequency of volunteering, age and reason for unemployment. Another study, by Andy Hurst, found that while 88% of those looking for a work believed volunteering would help them to secure paid work, only 41% who did find a job said volunteering helped them get it. Why is that?
Firstly, whether a person gets a new job or not depends not only on his or her skills and knowledge but also on a lot of other factors beyond their control and – importantly – beyond the influence of volunteering. For example, even the best volunteering programmes might have a limited effect on enhancing someone’s chances of getting back into work if there are no suitable jobs or no childcare is available so a person can take that job.
Secondly, for volunteering to have a positive impact on an unemployed person’s job prospects, they have to be presented with opportunities to get the skills and knowledge that ‘employers are crying out for’ – not just any kind of skills and knowledge (unfortunately, we still know very little about what kind of volunteering experiences employers value highly). Therefore, it is unrealistic to expect that any volunteering will get someone a job. It is likely that only specific volunteering programmes that provide skills in short supply would do that. So if you are an organisation or a policy maker developing a volunteering programme for the unemployed with the aim of enhancing their chances in the labour market, you might ask yourself this: how will this volunteering experience really help them get a job? Will it provide them with actual, sellable skills and knowledge that will make them a more attractive prospect to a potential employer?
If volunteering does not guarantee paid work, should we abandon the idea of volunteering during unemployment? Certainly not. Focusing only on the issue of employability we risk missing the wider social benefits and gains that people experience when they volunteer during periods of unemployment. Research demonstrates that volunteering has wider benefits for the unemployed and society at large than simply getting people back into work. In addition to improving people’s skills and self-confidence, volunteering enhances the national skills base and therefore contributes to economic growth.
Volunteering can serve as a meaningful alternative to paid work for individuals with disabilities, long-term illnesses and caring responsibilities. Volunteering can help them maintain their self-worth and offer them important social contact, and that can counteract the negative psychological effects of social exclusion. Volunteering in this instance can make a contribution to maintaining and increasing the national wellbeing.
So yes, we can say volunteering can help some unemployed people get a job. But there are many factors within and beyond volunteering experiences which influence whether they are successful or not in getting back into work. But as we see, there are also many additional individual and societal benefits of volunteering during unemployment that are not always apparent at first glance.
For a full review of the effects of volunteering during unemployment on employability, see Daiga Kamerāde’s paper ‘Volunteering during unemployment: more skills but where is the job?’