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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Volunteering During a Downturn - Can You Do It?

Recently, Sam Baker, a PBS/NPR radio host, and Debbie Kratcky of Workforce Solutions in Dallas discussed how job applicants can patch-up holes in their resumes by volunteering. I've always thought that this was an interesting idea... as an idea, but I wonder if it really works for anyone.

Now I have a big admission to make, and you probably won't like it: I am not a big fan of volunteering! There. I've said it! If at this point, you're beginning to squint, scowl, furrow your brow, or otherwise disfigure your face due to utter disapproval of these sentiments... that's ok; I can take it. Let me explain my trepidation. I think that it is a beautiful, and wonderful thing for people to volunteer to help others, for example, at soup kitchens, or out on the street... "in the field" helping the homeless, or the poor. However, my dislike for most volunteering comes from my background as a member of the solidly lower-middle class... the, "working poor". Long story short, companies that "hire" volunteers get free labor, essentially killing paying jobs, all the while blatantly, brutally, and hypocritically extolling the virtues of capitalism.

I've considered this issue from many angles, so I know that some of you are thinking... "... but a lot of non-profits, for example, can't afford to pay all of their workers... they wouldn't survive if they didn't have volunteers!" However, I am, as usual, incredulous. "Non-profit" does not mean, "altruistic", "saintly", "perfect" or non-money-making. So-called non-profits have profits that they typically are required to reinvest into their businesses. Many of these companies pay top-level executives high salaries, while inviting students, recent grads, single mothers, and men with families to donate their labor for free, as volunteers. However, without changing the total amount of income designated for human resources, non-profits can reapportion salaries so that everyone gets something. After all, why should some executive at a non-profit make $100K, while some volunteer/intern makes 0? Succinctly put, they should allocate their budgets differently!

More disgusting to me, is when wealthy debutants volunteer to work just to have something to do, i.e., because they are bored, even when they could care less about the cause, or the mission of the organization to which they apply. Their wealth insulates them from being responsible for their performance, and often, they are appreciated simply for attending, even if they arrive late, and even if their work product is wanting/mediocre.

However, what I'm really addressing here today, is the question that follows:

Is it feasible for adults--who are NOT independently wealthy, or benefactors of a trust fund, but, who instead... like most people have bills/families--to volunteer to do work, when they need the $$, and when so many people are jobless? In my humble, perhaps selfish, opinion it's a bit obscene to think so. It seems to me that even in soup kitchens, instead of asking people to volunteer, non-profits/public agencies should just hire some of the homeless people who come there! I mean, they could use the money right?

More germane to the, "how to fill gaps in your resume" issue is the conundrum that people are being encouraged to offer their services to for-profit companies, not to gain a foothold in the door, or necessarily to gain experience... but, primarily, to have something that they may reference as time-spent-wisely, when talking to hiring reps. The requirement to demonstrate that one hasn't rotted, while unemployed, even if one has to spend hours a day giving away one's valuable labor, seems a bit like hazing: "Hey! Are ya unemployed/broke? I've got an idea! (Sinister grin.) Why don't you give away your services for free! Maybe something will come of it. (Haahahahahahah!!!)." Further, volunteering to get references is not a sure thing; if it doesn't work out, having done so would seem to evidence that the applicant had used his/her time inefficiently, and that he/she has poor business sense.

Why so cynical? As usual, whenever you find an angry person, you will find a hurt one. I'm bitter about the volunteer thing for personal reasons. In particular, there are two reasons:

1) When I graduated from my non-profit graduate management program, I applied to agencies that advertised paying jobs, but who then pulled a bait and switch. Specifically, I'd get to the interview and they'd say some variation of, "Wow, you have a really impressive resume! ... We'd really like to hire you, but you don't have any experience in this field, so... we thought perhaps you might be interested in volunteering." Well, if I wanted to volunteer, I wouldn't have borrowed a fortunes-worth of student loans to get through grad-school! I could have volunteered with no experience coming out of high-school. (This, of course, is what I was thinking, not what I said, as I smiled graciously, and politely declined.)

2) I had tried the volunteer thing, and it didn't work out well for me. During the last semester of my graduate program, I caved to the pressure that one must volunteer in order to get experience for work, post-graduation. I commuted to a part-time temp job in the morning, for pay, but I still was broke. In the early evening, I commuted from one state to another to attend classes; I took a bus and two connecting Amtrak trains, on an six-hour round-trip commute (+2hrs for my class). Upon my return, I commuted to my volunteer gig, which was directly related to my major. I loved it. I did great work for them, and they loved me/my work. However, I ran out of money. I actually could not afford to go there any longer. I simply ran out of cash for car fare! When I told them, they couldn't believe it; they begged me to stay, because it was "a really crucial time", and supposedly they, really needed me. What they failed to realize was that this was not a choice on my part. I really didn't have the money! My books alone had swallowed up all of my cash. I was going to have to borrow $$ just to get to classes. I did so. I finished classes, and ultimately, I've always wondered, "Why didn't they just offer me a stipend... or car-fare... or something?" Apparently, making oneself indispensable does not assure that one is not disposable.

Finally, consider the fact that we have hundreds of thousands of illiterate children and adults in this country. Most people can teach reading, because they teach their own children at home. However, millions of people are unemployed, while, most formalized jobs to tutor English are volunteer, "opportunities". Why are all of these teachable people illiterate, while all of these other people are unemployed?

What do you think?

Before you answer, I should mention what I think is the appropriate way to fill gaps in ones resume: Gain expertise in the field in which you would like to be employed, and if possible get certifications to document your progress; get a paid internship in your desired field; or work with a temp agency to find temporary work in your field... until a "head hunter" can find "permanent" work for you. (If there is such a thing.)

Now, what say you about the whole volunteer to fill in your resume solution?


Jeni said...

Entertaining article. Nice site. Funny topic...the thing about volunteering is that I've found it to be more fulfilling when it's 100% volunteering, not work-related or a resume filler or a chance to network for business. So it's all about expectations. And be careful, too, when it comes to expectations of the volunteer organization. Now laid off, I have two letters of pro-bono work denials because they have too many volunteers. (Quite a kick to the confidence!) All in all, if you volunteer, make sure you don't think of it as a job or it will soon feel like it...without the bonus of a paycheck.

AJAB said...


Thanks! Your comments are spot-on. Despite my rant about volunteering, I have an RSS feed for volunteer "opportunities", and whenever I'm not feeling jaded... I click the link for one of the openings, and when I get to the site of origin it says, "Sorry, this position has been filled." Apparently, now that there is a more wide-spread profit-motive for volunteering (getting a reference/work experience to put on a resume), that avenue is closing. Also, I agree with you that if one's intentions are selfless, one will get more out of a volunteer experience.

Anonymous said...

While it sucks to be working for free when others do the same job and get paid for it, there are two other benefits to volunteering when unemployed: it can add structure and bring a sense of being productive. These may not be all that valuable to some. But to others, particularly those that have been out of work for some time, volunteering could be be theraputic.

AJAB said...

Duly noted. Apparently, I should have volunteered months ago ;)

Just Playin' said...

Now you're confusing me because you have TWO sites! I've been to both. There is so much to say about jobs right now. Everybody has a story. One of my sons "might" have an interview coming soon. He has been unemployed since April. If you are a pray-er, say a few for Jer! I think when it's the right time to volunteer, that's when you do it. When it's not the right time, it just isn't right! Love your site, both of them and thanks for finding me today!

AJAB said...

I know. ... 2 sites, and I've been considering doing a couple more. There's so much on my mind these days, and I too am confused. I feel like I'm everywhere, and nowhere all at once :)

I do happen to be a, "pray-er", so, I will be happy to pray for the best for your son. (That just made me think about a great blog entry.) Ah well.

The important thing is that I'll pray for him, and I'm glad that I found your blog again. Thanks for swinging by both of mine:)

(I still am not sure what I think about volunteering, so I'm really glad to have gotten some feedback about it.)

A Jab At Work Poetry (Poetry about Work)

“Work” by AJA-B, 08/30/09

The life I live is full of Joy,
But fool of sadness have I been,
If rumblings uttered prove us coy,
Then, truth be told both where, and when,
Was once a pair that teetered then,
O’er brinks or hills,
That they could scarce,
Find liquid, bars of salt, but bills,
And toil, though notice paid none dare’st,
To sweat, and pack, and tape, and wrap,
To call, and quest, rebuffed for cost,
To drive five states, and back, for gas
Traverse, from here to there to drink,
While aching back, and sweat-soaked shirt,
Proved naught the laborers’ worth, but stink,
And why should hecklers, wreckers blurt,
And hurl insults until they hurt,
While hypocrites sit conditioned in,
Till out a pair sent all they’d earned,
To others seeking extra, win,
‘gainst those that taught themselves, and learned,
Volumes, nearly choked and burned,
As plumes of hate, and stacks of smoke,
Sparked flames, which brinksmanship, did stoke,
Hellacious fires that GOD awoke,
& Smote the devils’ flames whose’ fire,
Could not the heights of clouds aspire,
& Up the pair in now a shell,
found seeds to plant that vines did swell,
Fat, filling, fruit and tasty cheer,
Revealing teeth, “from ear to ear,”
Now brimming, happily forgiving, hope,
Refilling cranial stores to find,
Surviving, counts for little more than sustaining life, and wasting time.

Digressing now though more is there,
I advise you work, but ne’er care,
Hard work, and success are not the same,
But without the first you’ll reap the blame,
For being weak, and seeming lame,
To end I wish you all the best,
Catharsis exhausts, I needs must rest,
Good luck, “You’re hired” I hope you’ll find,
To ease your cares, and soothe your mind.

© 2009 AJA-B

A Jab at Work Survey

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