Volunteering Pays

Recently the Governor of the Bank of Canada, Stephen Poloz, came under fire for recommending that young workers seeking employment after graduating from university “work for free”. His statement was met with harsh criticism and understandably so – after spending several years attending post-secondary education one would assume that a college or university graduate would have all the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary for paid employment and that working for free wouldn’t be necessary.

According to the January 2014 documentary, Generation Jobless, “youth unemployment and underemployment is a ticking time bomb with serious consequences for everyone”. The situation for new graduates has changed. A good education used to be the ticket to a good job. Education no longer guarantees employment. In addition to formal education and training employers place significant value on the demonstration of knowledge, skills, and abilities – experience is essential and sometimes even more important than education. You have undoubtedly heard someone say, or said yourself, that it is difficult to get a job without experience and without a job it is difficult to get experience. It is the vicious cycle of new grads, career transitioners, and those facing employment challenges. Following are a few considerations and tips related to getting both experience and a job.

A certificate, diploma, or degree title does not demonstrate your specific achievements. What types of activities were you involved in while you were in school? What projects did you work on? What characteristics helped you to be successful? What did you learn and how can you apply that knowledge to a particular position? If you education alone isn’t getting you where you want to go, what are you prepared to do to get there?

There is more than one way to gain the experience a potential employer might be looking for. While some employers, for some positions, are looking for specific education, training, and experience others are interested in related or relevant experience. Transferrable skills, those skills that can be easily applied in different environments and utilized for different positions, are incredibly important to identify and to communicate. By highlighting your accomplishments and achievements – demonstrating your knowledge, skills, and abilities – you will be able to communicate your transferrable skills and your value to a potential employer. What have you done in the past that has made a difference to an employer, a team, a project? Be specific and focus on the result. Did you save an employer money – how did you do that? Was a team you were part of struggling – how did you get them back on track? Were you successful in completing a project – what made you successful?

It is easier to find a job when you have a job. Does this sound counter-intuitive? Work search, after all, takes an incredible amount of effort and energy. How could one possibly find the time to work search if they are already working? When you are working – even if it isn't it in your preferred position, or with your preferred employer, or even in your preferred industry – you are getting up every day, going somewhere, and doing something. You are talking to people. You are developing skills and knowledge, gaining transferrable skills, and demonstrating your value. You might not think that working in a warehouse has anything to do with engineering or that making lattes has any relevance to social work but if you take some time to really evaluate your tasks and the skills you have mastered as a result you will be surprised at the transferability. 

Volunteering is a great way to get connected. It is also one of the best ways to find meaningful work. Volunteering is a way to contribute, to give back, and to be a part of something that has meaning to you. It allows you to build a network and to share. While volunteering with a specific organization may not necessarily lead to employment with that organization it may get you a start in a particular industry or a contact with a related organization. Volunteerism and community involvement is often looked at very favourably by employers.

Your employment preferences are unique to you. The only person who has to enjoy and find meaning in the work you do is you! There is something about every job you have held or have pursued that led you to it over another job. What was it that led you to choose a large employer over a small employer or to work in the hospitality industry rather than the retail industry? Taking stock of the factors that make a particular type of work, employer, or industry appealing will help you in your pursuit of future positions! This type of evaluation will not only help to streamline your job search but help you to make better connections and more accurately describe your transferrable skills. As a society we have placed specific value on different types of work. Buying into society’s categorizations can certainly impact the work you choose and how you feel about the work you are doing. This can be especially true if you aren't doing what you ultimately want to be doing. Remember that the only person whose opinion about the work you are doing that matters is your opinion.

“If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten”.
~ Anthony Robbins

If you are not working and are having a hard time finding work directly related to your education or career goals, then why not volunteer in your industry or occupation to gain some experience and make some connections. If you are working at a job that isn't related to your career goal why not offer to assist your employer with a project that is. Do some freelance work to build up a portfolio. Get involved with a professional association. Contribute to your community. Be innovative. Negotiate. Take action. There is merit to volunteering, offering pro bono services, and participating in internships. The suggestion here is not to "work for free" as an alternative to "work for money" but rather to find meaningful ways to develop and demonstrate your skills that can help to propel you forward rather than keep you stuck.

Everyone has skills worth monetary value. Every employer needs someone with skills. The challenge lies in the demonstration, and recognition, of those skills. Sometimes demonstrating skills means working for free and sometimes recognizing skills means taking a chance. Work searchers and employers need to step up and meet in the middle. This is not an “us” vs “them” problem.

Check out the awesome "free work" my friends Denis and Clinton of Road to Employment are doing on this very topic! Denis and Clinton created their own opportunity and during their cross Canada road trip explored the issues of youth unemployment and underemployment. They have already put together some fabulous resources for youth and are putting together a documentary about their findings.
An entrepreneurial mindset to work search and to career development in general can be incredibly beneficial. Less and less work arrangements are full time in nature with more and more being contract, project, and portfolio based. The world of work is fascinating. So many options to explore and so many ways to do work that is personally fulfilling. Enjoy the journey and scenery along the road!
Yours in Career Development,


For a FREE 30 minute job search consultation please feel free to contact Paula directly at or 780.589.2245.

For a FREE 30 minute consultation please feel free to contact Paula directly at or 780.589.2245. Connect with Paula on LinkedIn or Facebook.

Please feel free to post your career and employment questions, engage in discussions and conversations about world of work issues, and share your experiences and resources – we want to hear from you!