Does volunteering boost student employability?

Volunteering is regularly promoted as improving employability, yet research on its impact is limited, with much of it relying on self-reported measures rather than employment outcomes.

Research that has been conducted has suggested volunteering to have an impact on “individual employability” (e.g. building skills, confidence, and wellbeing), but for this to weakly translate to employment outcomes.

Despite the lack of evidence of volunteering improving employment outcomes, universities and SUs strongly encourage students to volunteer for this very reason. A short analysis of twenty randomly selected universities’ websites shows that fifteen have pages dedicated to volunteering opportunities, of which thirteen explicitly mention employability benefits.

Claims

Seventeen SUs associated with these universities had volunteering opportunities available (excluding student society positions). Despite this enthusiasm to get students to volunteer for the benefits to their careers, the evidence of impact is slight. Eight of the universities selected did not provide any evidence for this claim, whilst the rest either provided self-reported measures or statistics from unreferenced or unavailable sources, and Northumbria Students’ Union has also been guilty of this:

Research shows that 80% of employers value voluntary work experience, with 58% valuing it more than paid work experience”.

No reference to any study has been provided for these statistics. (Liverpool University)

80 percent of employers are more likely to hire an applicant with volunteering experience. (Based on a study recently conducted by Oxfam.).

No link has been provided to this study by Oxfam nor has a date for when this study was conducted. (Liverpool John Moores University)

A survey of 200 of the UK’s leading businesses (TimeBank, 2009) showed some of the career benefits of volunteering: 73% said they would recruit a candidate with volunteering experience over one without.”

Whilst TimeBank has clearly been referenced, this survey was conducted by TimeBank through reed.co.uk whose report is not available, and who do not discuss this on their own website. (University of Highlands and Islands)

Only 60% of employers rate a good degree as important.”

No citation given. (Northumbria Students’ Union)

Where’s your evidence?

This lack of hard evidence was the basis for a bid by Northumbria Students’ Union to the University to fund a piece of research into this topic. Like other institutions, volunteering opportunities are stated in the business plan of both university and SU as activities enhancing employability but with no supporting evidence.

This project was conducted between November 2018 and May 2019 and investigated employer and student perspectives of various aspects of volunteering and employability including comparisons with other forms of work experience, different aspects of volunteering, volunteer recognition schemes, and common assumptions. An outline of the project can be seen in the infographic below:

Figure 1: Research project infographic.

Significant findings

Comparison with other forms of work experience

Employers rated the importance of volunteer experience similarly to other forms of work experience. However, internships and placements were generally considered to be more important.

Most employers rated projects at university lower than extra-curricular activities as they wanted to see students engaging in activities out-with their degree.

All 18 employers said that the quality of each type of experience discussed can vary widely. Thus, some types of volunteering (e.g. litter picks or charity shop sales assistant) were regarded to have no employability value, whilst other roles (e.g. Nightline volunteers) were highly regarded. This also meant that high quality volunteer experience could be deemed as valuable or more than placements or internships.

Figure 2: Employers response to the question: Using a rating of 1-5, where 1 is extremely important and 5 is not important at all, how valuable are the following within a graduate application?

Aspects of volunteering

Employers rated the ability to articulate the skills and experiences gained from volunteering as the most important aspect of volunteering (Figure 3). This was a central theme throughout much of the interviews for all eighteen employers.

The level of responsibility of a volunteer was highly rated as this was believed to be conducive of a higher quality experience (Figure 3).

The number of hours volunteered was regarded to be of minimal importance, as it was perceived only to be useful up to a point for the likelihood of building skills and showing commitment. However, employers generally would not favour one candidate over another due to one having volunteered more hours (Figure 3).

The role title was regarded as unimportant as it did not provide any information about the quality of the volunteer experience (Figure 3).

Many employers responded that an important aspect missing from our list of volunteering aspects was what the volunteers had achieved during their experience.

Figure 3: Employers rating of the question: “Using a rating of 1-5, where 1 is extremely valuable and 5 is not valuable at all, which of the elements of volunteering are valuable to you as an employer?”.

Assumptions

A situation in which an employer has two similar candidates, of which one has volunteered and one hasn’t, has never occurred for seventeen employers, and only historically occurred for the final employer. Yet this was suggested to occur in seven out of seventeen student focus groups and is also suggested by the quote from the University of Highlands and Islands.

Recognition schemes

Only three employers had heard of the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR), but none knew what it was, and only two would consider using it provided research was available that demonstrated it selected for higher quality candidates (Figure 4). This is the method of volunteer recognition currently used by Northumbria University.

Figure 4: Employers responses to questions about the HEAR. Each column represents one employer and each row represents a question.

Lessons for the future

This research identified that employers can find volunteering beneficial, but that it is dependent on the quality of the volunteering experience, what is achieved, and most critically how the experience is articulated in relation to the role being applied to.

The promotion of volunteering by universities and SUs strongly suggests that these aspects of volunteering do not receive enough attention by universities, as exemplified by the popularity of methods of recognition such as the HEAR or methods that track number of hours and title, than assisting students in articulating their experience or differentiating between the quality of different volunteer experiences.

There is obviously a clear role for university careers departments in helping students articulate their experiences. Staff leading on volunteer activities should be ensuring there are strong links to careers services and that students are actively seeking out guidance on how to articulate their experiences.

Another key finding was that not all volunteering opportunities were regarded as useful for employability, and that current opportunities are not fully taken advantage of by students to make them useful for employability. For instance, a common method of volunteering in universities – course representatives – could be regarded as valuable experience if they conducted a piece of research or helped resolve a large issue (and of course if they could articulate this well), but a course representative that simply sends a few emails and provides feedback at infrequent meetings would not be deemed as valuable experience.

Additionally, the diversity of candidates and experiences and complexity of application processes was made evident, such that the idea that volunteering will set you apart from other candidates who have not volunteered was resoundingly rejected.

This research suggested that universities need to radically change how they think about volunteering, recognising that not all forms are valuable, and ensuring that students have access to high quality opportunities and that volunteers are able to articulate their experiences.

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