At some point, someone has probably advised you to do some volunteering in order to fill gaps in your resume when you’re having trouble finding work. Someone has said 'volunteering gets you a job.' Future employers will see the value in the unpaid work, too, or so the thinking goes.
But is it true?
My sister (whose name I’ll keep out of this so you all won’t think of her as a workplace Grinch) shot holes in this advice in a recent conversation we had. She owns a mid-sized company and handles most of her company’s hiring and firing. She told me plainly that she is hesitant to hire someone with a lot of volunteer work listed on their resume.
“I’m sure they’re great people, great citizens,” she explained, “but I’m not hiring great citizens. I need great workers. Someone who has spent a lot of time volunteering in the past is going to have a hard time walking away from those causes completely. They’re going to be more likely to take time away from the work I need them to do so they can keep up with volunteer pursuits.”
(My sister, for the record, is a fairly committed volunteer herself. Just sayin’.)
Her words stopped me short. Like lots of people, I’ve long heard that listing volunteer work on a resume is almost as good as listing paid work experience. At worst, I assumed my volunteer work would be viewed neutrally -- maybe not an asset, but not a detriment, either.
But could my volunteer activities actually prevent me from getting hired?
According to this Real Simple story, mentioning some types of volunteering can hurt your job prospects. For example, they say women shouldn’t mention volunteering that is directly related to being a parent. And no one should mention work that might be polarizing, such as with controversial organizations, or overtly religious or political groups.
I can’t answer the to volunteer-or-not debate conclusively. But I would like to add another take on it:
Volunteering may not get you the job, but it can keep you relevant.I stopped working full time when my son was born 10 years ago. I continued to work part-time from home and I found several causes that satisfied my need to do meaningful work in the midst of the mind-numbing drudgery of parenting.
(Yes, there are many delightful, rewarding moments in a stay-at-home-mom’s day, but there’s also a lot of mind-numbing, nerve-shredding, drudgery.)
When I decided recently to go back to school for a Masters Degree, it was my volunteer experience -- even more than the years I spent in the full-time and part-time workforce, that helped me.
My volunteer work over the years has meant conference calls, dozens upon dozens of conference calls. It’s meant learning new telecommuting platforms in order to work on projects. In one case, it meant learning the basics of HTML coding and web design. Because of volunteering, I learned to build a PowerPoint presentation and how to read and create an Excel spreadsheet. I’ve also had exposure to people whose own professional backgrounds are in industries that I’ve never worked in and, thorough working with them, I now have some understanding of how those industries function. That can only be good stuff to know.
And when, in my online Masters program, I got buddied up with three classmates for a group assignment and my (younger, more recently graduated from college teammates) suggested that we do a Google hangout to meet and that we upload our project online so we could work on it simultaneously. Been there done that. Because of my volunteer work, and not my paid work, I wasn't intimidated by the technology in the slightest.
Volunteering might not land me a job. I might even decide to follow my sister’s advice and keep my volunteer activities off my resume entirely. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t help me. Whether it helps me land a job or not, I have no doubt that the skills I picked up through volunteering will help me excel in and keep whatever job I do manage to get.
Photo: Tetsuo Nakahara/U.S. Army