Why it pays to do work for free

Recruiters prefer resumes with relevant volunteer experience, too. (Craig Hudson/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
Recruiters prefer resumes with relevant volunteer experience, too. (Craig Hudson/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Volunteering doesn't just help your conscience or your community, an increasing number of studies are showing. It also helps your career.

Most of us already believe this to be true. We're told in high school that volunteer work looks good on a college application. Service work like a stint in the Peace Corps has long been a respected segue between college and an entry-level job. And serving on a nonprofit board is one of the best ways to network with powerful members of your community.

But a growing body of research is finding hard evidence that bolsters the informal belief that volunteer work can help with your career--particularly if you're unemployed. In June, the Center for Economic and Policy Research released a report that attempted to fill the gap in what it called the "surprisingly little research" that has been done on the link between volunteering, employment and pay. By using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Current Population Survey, it found that unemployed people were 6.8 percentage points more likely to have found a job a year later if they volunteered between 20 and 99 hours a year, compared with those who did not volunteer at all. (Meanwhile, the study found that volunteering less than 20 hours a year did not make people more likely to get a job and saw no significant increase in wage growth for those who volunteer.)

Also in June, the Corporation for National and Community Service released a report with similar findings--albeit ones that show an even bigger impact on the job search for those who volunteer. The federal agency reported that unemployed Americans have a 27 percent better chance of finding a job if they volunteer, the Post reported recently. Also using BLS data, the study found that the greatest beneficiaries of volunteer work were those without a high school degree or who live in rural areas. Those groups upped their chance by more than 50 percent if they did volunteer work.

Finally, late last year, an experiment by researchers at California State University and McMaster University found that recruiters ranked resumes most highly when they included both paid and unpaid work that was related to the job in question. Even resumes that had relevant paid work and unrelated volunteer work were scored more highly than those that only listed pertinent paid experience.

Unfortunately, most people--and particularly those who could benefit most--haven't gotten the message. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, according to CEPR, shows that just 26.5 percent of Americans age 16 and older did volunteer work in 2012. The ratio of unemployed Americans who volunteer is even lower, and even lower still than the percentage of jobless people who volunteered in 2003-2005, before the economy went into recession.

Perhaps most alarming? Young people between the ages of 16 and 24--those who make up a disproportionate share of the unemployed and who have the least paid experience to help them land a job--volunteered the least during the recession, and even then at lower rates than they did between 2003 and 2005. Maybe there's something to the idea of a national service requirement after all.


Volunteer rates during the recession were actually lower than between 2003 and 2005. (Center for Economic and Policy Research, using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

The one thing you shouldn't leave off your resume

Volunteering lifts job prospects of the jobless

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor · July 3, 2013