Experience, experience, experience. Want a great job after graduation? You need experience. To get this, you might volunteer, or have a part-time position while studying. But to get a role in your field? You need some seriously developed skills, and some great references too.
For many pursuing their future career, volunteer experience is a popular option. Give back, gain experience. Sounds easy – especially because many people assume you do not have to be qualified to provide volunteer assistance. Not true. Volunteer roles mimic paid roles – nobody has the time or resources to train you from scratch, or to babysit someone ‘wanting to explore some options’. Volunteer roles can be just as valuable as paid work experience. Take it seriously, and you will be rewarded.
In many fields, those who have not undertaken internships or work throughout their degree have already taken second place in the job market. Many graduates face a common challenge because even unpaid internships and volunteer roles require experience. However, it can be hard to balance work, university and supporting yourself all at the same time. If you live at home with your parents, then you are in a prime spot to replace paid work with long term volunteering, giving you an edge after graduating. Another option is to look for some intensive, short-term volunteer work.
“Volunteer roles mimic paid roles – nobody has the time or resources to train you from scratch”
Many volunteer roles in Australia need you to already have developed skills or qualifications. Many do not, but they may not be relevant to your field or abilities, and therefore may not contribute to securing a job. Sound confusing and difficult? Well, yeah, it is. It can be just as competitive to obtain a volunteer position as it is to obtain a paid one. So, people must get a bit creative.
Cue the rise of volunteer tourism and overseas internships. If you pair your desire for travel with gaining career-worthy experience, you can add a combination of sought-after qualities to your CV. In an increasingly competitive and globalised world, mere travel experience doesn’t always cut it. The gap-year backpacking trip taken after high school used to impress. Now, looking overseas for volunteer work can fill the practical need for both work experience and for adventure. But as with everything, there is no one-size-fits-all option with regards to volunteer experience. Below is a brief outline of some things to consider.
Firstly, volunteering should be of mutual benefit to both the organisation and the volunteer. Motivations for volunteering vary, but many people wish to give their skills and CV a general boost. Don’t forget that time and finances are a factor – particularly with overseas options. If you only have one or two weeks to devote during a semester break, choose your project wisely. Also, it helps to analyse your current skill set and what skills you desire to build on from the volunteer experience. If your university degree is in International Relations and you travel to India to help build a school, a potential employer will quickly discard that experience as irrelevant.
Secondly, because overseas volunteering is linked to the tourism industry – and profit – there is an issue with exploitative and unfair practices. If you help build that school while studying for your degree in International Relations, has that in fact helped that local community? Would you be able to build an adequate structure with no experience in architectural planning, no experience in engineering, and certainly no experience in water and sanitation? Probably not.
You need to ensure that the organisation and project you work with are in fact responsible and sustainable in the community you visit. This can be difficult to independently verify, and a lot of foreigners rely on apparently ‘responsible’ tourism companies based within their own country. These companies are not interested in international development: they are volunteer tourism travel agencies. The problem here is that these western-based, for-profit agencies do not actively verify the work being done; the safety of the area or project; or the impact made on local communities. Many organisations in your home country will be tightly regulated by local laws.
The key is to seek a local organisation – one that is founded by, employs and is for local people.
If overseas is the way to go for you, contact the local organisation directly. If you research thoroughly, find local NGOs and contact them, they will usually be more than happy to provide further information and potentially coordinate a volunteer visit. A helpful article is available through this link which includes an option to purchase The Underground Guide to Volunteering. This is a comprehensive guide which includes contact details for many organisations, but there is a lot of other free information online too. (Try the Directory of Development Organisations, which is a comprehensive but not very recent collection of organisations throughout the world).*
The key is to seek a local organisation – one that is founded by, employs and is for local people. If you are accepted as a volunteer, it will be because the organisation requires assistance that is tailored to what you are prepared to offer. It is wise to consider the logistics and benefit of a short volunteer trip. Would you be able to achieve anything for the organisation – or yourself – in a two week timeframe? Would it be financially viable for you to travel for your whole mid-semester break, or volunteer one day each week in your local neighbourhood?
Living and working in another country can be rewarding in many ways. Aside from assisting a community, it provides an opportunity to grow your personal skills, enhance cross-cultural communication and insert relevant experience into your work history. Volunteer experience at home is equally as important. When completing job applications, it seems as though overseas experience is often highly regarded but not essential – and that is only if the work experience is relevant and long term. For the cash or time poor, volunteering in your home country may be the right choice. You can always ask your university lecturers for some advice on local organisations, and get a foot in the door by offering even simple, administrative assistance.
Do your research. It should be a challenge. It should teach and inform and create understanding. Ideally, any volunteering should be less holiday, more work. But what an individual takes from any experience will largely depend on that individual. You don’t instantly become a better person or distinctly employable by exploring the world, nor are you a closed or unemployable person if you prefer to remain home.
Tell us below: what have been your experiences with selecting volunteer work?
*The original published version of this article did not include this link.