Lots of people assume that voluntary, or unpaid, work won’t be seen by employers as valid work experience. This is incorrect! Some sectors, such as the media or social work, have very few formal internship opportunities and volunteering is a key way to gain experience and a foot in the door. Likewise, if you hope to work within the voluntary sector itself, volunteering will provide vital experience, evidence your commitment to the sector and help you to start your network of useful contacts.
If your volunteering allows you to develop useful skills – such as communication, dealing with difficult situations and time management – it can provide useful evidence for any job application. In fact, doing something voluntarily with no financial reward is a good way to demonstrate your commitment.
Volunteering can also be a stepping stone to securing paid work or a more formal internship in the sector you are interested in and allows you to try out the sector or to see how you cope with working for a specific client group, e.g. volunteering in a classroom if you want to teach.
Activity 2 Comparing volunteering with a formal internship
Read the following case studies and then summarise any differences and similarities between the two experiences in the box below.
Sarah has just completed an internship with a major high street retailer. She worked within the buying department, helping to source the latest on-trend products. She was in a large team and had to liaise with staff in two other departments. She was given her own responsibilities and had a buddy/mentor to support her if she needed it.
Raj has been volunteering with a local charity focused on the needs of asylum seekers. He has been interpreting and liaising with local authorities on each individual’s behalf. There are only three people doing this work and he is the least experienced. He is often left to solve any problems that arise, although he can call on the more experienced members of the team if he needs them.
Hopefully, despite their very different contexts, you will have identified several similarities in the skills and experience being gained by both Sarah and Raj. For example, both will have developed their communication skills and their ability to take on responsibility and work under pressure. They might also have learned something about knowing when to ask for support and when to make decisions for themselves.
These are all skills that will be highly valued by any future employer and the context in which they have developed them is of less importance. Of course, if Raj is intending to work in the voluntary sector in the future, this experience will be a key starting point for his career.
You may have identified some different skills too, which will be just as useful in their future job applications, but the point of this activity is to highlight that similar skills can be gained from both formal and informal work experiences.
Later in the course, you’ll spend some time thinking about the skills and experiences that will help you with your career plans, and this will assist your decisions about the work experience you choose.