Volunteering can be a rewarding experience and is a legitimate method of developing appropriate work-ready skills. This article focuses on useful tips and strategies to help would-be volunteers gain the maximum benefit from their experience. It provides insight into how to select relevant positions and use these as a pathway into a chosen career.

Is it a positive step to consider volunteering as a means of contributing to your own personal development and your community?

Volunteering should not be considered as a person giving up their time to provide cheap, or free labour; but rather, it should be seen as an opportunity - an opportunity to develop new skills and put these into practice, while meaningfully contributing to a particular organization or service provider.

Thoughtfully considered, volunteering can provide you with a useful pathway into a career of your choosing.

For example, people who volunteer for the Army Reserve, often find it easier to apply for and be accepted into the regular army. Why? Because while in their volunteer position with the Reserve, participants are given insight into the kinds of training and commitment needed for a successful, paid army career.

The Reserve is based on a model very similar to the regular army and volunteers are taught skills relating to the key areas of discipline, regulations, training and responsibilities.

In other words, by volunteering in the Reserve, participants are taught and shown what to expect in a full-time career. They may already have completed some of the prerequisites of an army career by fulfilling their obligation as a volunteer.

In this particular case, a volunteer completing Reserve obligations would be in a much better position to know whether or not a full-time army career was, indeed, what they really wanted.

Wouldn't it be an advantage for everyone to have this kind of opportunity before embarking on any career pathway?

Some people already have clear direction about the kind of work they want to do. Some have planned for it and worked toward it for a large proportion of their secondary schooling. They may even have had limited practical experience through a school placement or work experience, or the like.

Volunteering in this case is a wonderful opportunity for further skill development. Let us first consider the following:

A young person has long had a strong desire to become a veterinarian. He has worked hard during secondary school and gone on to college. While completing his college education, he looks for and finds a volunteer position in a veterinarian's office.

This may give him the opportunity to practice some of the skills he has been learning about in his college classes. It might also provide the opportunity to observe real situations pertaining to his theory work. In other words, he is supplementing his study with an opportunity to observe, practice, or develop further knowledge, skills and abilities.

Let us now consider a person who has not realised her expectations through her secondary education.

In a recent case, a young woman who had just completed her senior year of high school did not receive the results she had been expecting. Her entire secondary schooling had been completed with one major aim in mind: getting the required results necessary to gain entry into college to study nursing. In fact, she didn't!

As it turned out, she had a disastrous year and did not even receive her high school diploma. She was devastated, having been a model student, with better than average grades for the previous 11 years of her schooling. She just had a "bad year."

The young lady presented to me as a person who couldn't talk about her future without bursting into tears. She thought she had blown her chance, her passion and dream for a career in the health care industry was gone and lost to her forever. Her experience in her final year of school left her bitter, and returning for another go was not an option she would consider.

We talked about other pathways into her chosen career field and quickly discovered she was not really aware of other options; she had always been driven toward obtaining a college degree.

It was quite easy for her to obtain a position in a home for the aged as a volunteer; working with the aged was something she had aspired to do through her nursing. She supplemented this by enrolling in a TAFE Certificate in Community Services - Aged Care course (in Australia) and is now extremely happy.

Her approach to her future is entirely different - she is once again focused and positive. She loves her volunteer work and is now an integral part of the staff at that home. She has goals and ambitions again and can clearly see the way forward.

The volunteer experience provided her with the opportunity to re-focus and develop specific skills and understandings in a particular field. More importantly, she has been given the opportunity to network among people directly involved in her chosen career field, and she has paid employment waiting for her when she completes the Certificate course.

Unfortunately, many young people proceed through school with a blinkered approach to their futures. As a professional Career and Transition Advisor, I would urge all students to consider volunteer work as an option to assist advancement along chosen pathways.

Some students progress with little or no idea about what future direction to take, so could volunteering help these people? The answer is a resounding yes.

A volunteer position can provide insight into any career, and there is no shortage of organizations that are prepared to take volunteers. Unlike a four-year college degree, or an apprenticeship - or any form of employment or training for that matter, a volunteer position does not necessarily require a long-term commitment.

A volunteer position can help a person decide what is not for them, just as easily as it can help someone decide what is for them.

There are always important considerations to be aware of when looking for a suitable volunteer position. Please do not consider the following list as either complete or finite - rather, use it as a starting-point checklist for identifying possibilities:
  • Ensure the organization you are approaching is reputable. Don't become a source of cheap, or free, labour.

  • Don't be afraid to ask what benefits are available to you as a volunteer. What are you going to gain by donating your time and experiences?

  • Enquire about what support is available to volunteers. Do they provide you with training, skill development opportunities, etc.?

  • Know your role - will you be an observer or will you required to be actively involved? What limitations are imposed due to confidentiality, insurance, or organisational or legal requirements? It is just as important, in some cases, to know about what you cannot do, as well as it is to know what you can do.

  • What will be the level of commitment? Are you required to commit to attendance at certain times?

  • Are there any legal requirements of the role - such as background checks, a knowledge of first aid, or mandated notification? And, if so, will the organization support you in achieving these?

  • Are you supplied with clothing or safety equipment, if needed? Are there government requirements that you need to be informed about?
There can always be a positive outcome to volunteering. The obvious benefits include:
  • Skill development
  • Mentoring
  • First-hand knowledge acquisition
  • Practice opportunities
  • Networking
  • Career-pathway development opportunities
  • Recognition of skills
  • References
For some, it is the gratification of helping others in times of need. For others it is the good feeling they get for contributing to the overall development of a product or service.

Quite a few people use volunteering as a means of developing particular skills, or making themselves more employable.

Whatever your motivation, it can be an important first step for you, on a pathway to some kind of fulfilment or development, be it educational, career-oriented, or personal. Do not disregard volunteering as a viable option toward helping secure employment!

SOURCE: Submitted by Tony Holden, B.ed. Copyright 2004 Tony Holden. All rights reserved. Tony is a Career and Transition Advisor for one of 23 Australian Government National Pilot Programmes. His particular pilot is based in the Mid-North region of South Australia, where he serves more than 2,000 young people and covers an area of 14,500 sq. kilometres, providing access to a career advisor, up-to-date career information, transitional support, and pathway development. He may be reached via email at askpp_cats@bigpond.com or by phone: +61.08.8633 2922. All rights reserved.