Volunteering lifts job prospects of the jobless


Former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis issued a guidance to state workforce agencies last year emphasizing that volunteering may be one strategy that can help put the unemployed back to work. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Unemployed Americans stand a much better chance of finding a paying job if they first work for free. That is the key finding from a new federal study that is billed as the first empirical examination of the benefits of volunteering for out-of-work Americans.

The report, to be released Tuesday by the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency that encourages and facilitates volunteerism, found that jobless Americans increase their odds of finding work by 27 percent if they volunteer.

Strikingly, the benefits of volunteering flow most generously to those who do not have a high school diploma and to jobless people who live in rural areas — two of the groups that have the hardest time finding new jobs. While they forfeit income during the time they spend volunteering, the effort can be an investment: Those groups increase their chances of finding work by more than 50 percent by volunteering, the study found.

“The study findings suggest that folks who tend to volunteer less typically have less human and social capital,” said Christopher Spera, director of research and evaluation for the corporation and lead author of the study. “Folks with lower levels of education tend not to have the networks and social capital enjoyed by folks with higher levels of education.”

The study, which was done by mining data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, lends heft to a notion that had until now been mostly anecdotal: that volunteering makes people more employable.

The issue has taken on new urgency in the wake of the Great Recession, which has pushed jobless rates up to levels not seen since the early 1980s. The report builds on other research that has found that volunteering helps people learn skills, be presented with leadership opportunities, enhance their résumés and — perhaps most crucially — develop a network of contacts that can help them find work. The study did not attempt to differentiate where people volunteered, or how much time they spent doing it.

The link between volunteering and reducing joblessness was endorsed by former labor secretary Hilda L. Solis, who last year issued a guidance to state workforce agencies emphasizing that volunteering may be one strategy that can help put the unemployed — particularly the 4.4 million Americans who have been out of work for more than six months — back to work.

“In a complex 21st-century economy that demands new skills of American workers, volunteerism is not a substitute for job training,” Solis said. “But it can be an important complement. And it can be a way to give a leg up to job seekers who’ve decided that enrolling in a training program is not the right choice for them at this time. . . . The truth is volunteering may actually expose job seekers to new job opportunities.”

Wendy Spencer, chief executive of the corporation, said she became interested in the power of volunteerism in helping people get back into the workforce when she led volunteer efforts in Florida, a state hit particularly hard by the economic downturn.

She said she urged volunteer managers to recruit unemployed people into their ranks and invest in their professional development, much like many organizations do with interns. She said she had a gut instinct that this would help both the volunteers and the organizations they worked for, but she had no hard data backing it up. Now she does — which she said carries policy implications.

“I think workforce organizations should actually partner with nonprofits and organizations that are volunteer connectors and ask if they can set up a vehicle of communication for those they are working with and counseling,” Spencer said.

Michael A. Fletcher is a national economics correspondent, writing about unemployment, state and municipal debt, the evolving job market and the auto industry.
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