Career Advice for Job Seekers

Turning Volunteer Experience into Work Experience

William Frierson AvatarWilliam Frierson
March 13, 2015

Portrait of kitchen staff in homeless shelter

Portrait of kitchen staff in homeless shelter. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Many young people finish college successfully only to find that their resume doesn’t have everything they need to land a job in their field. Although the job market is increasingly competitive, new graduates are advised to remember that their volunteer experience is a great thing to include when building their resume. Although traditional paid jobs are the most straightforward way to demonstrate experience to potential employers, people who volunteer on a regular basis should remember that unpaid work is a valid and helpful thing to exhibit as part of their experience history.

1– Make a list of skills learned

Before starting their resume, new graduates should make a list of attributes that they gained from their volunteer experience. For example, somebody who volunteered at a local after-school day care facility should think about the proficiency they have gained that would be useful as an educator, social worker, or any other field that includes the welfare of children. A list of skills might include: Classroom management, academic tutoring, conflict resolution, people skills, first aid etc… Additionally, somebody who monitored a website or put together an online newspaper for a charitable organization will have plenty of skills to apply towards a journalism or communications position. A list of skills might include: Time management, proofreading, organization, and steam engine optimization.

Volunteers are advised to think about what specific list of qualities applies to their history of experience and then gear it towards the field that they are hoping to go into.

2– Be upfront

It’s important to be straightforward that the volunteer jobs listed under the experience history section were unpaid. Applicants can simply put “volunteer” in parentheses after the job title to demonstrate that they’re being honest that this was an unpaid position. Volunteer experience is not necessarily less valuable but it should remain separate.

3– Calculate the number of hours spent on each cause

Somebody who volunteered an hour here and an hour there may not be able to legitimately list this as a position in their experience history, however, if somebody volunteered 20 or more hours per week, it would be comparable to having a part-time job. In addition, recent graduates who are volunteering in their field to gain experience (and working a paid job on the side), should think about how far they can expand their volunteer hours to make it more impressive on their resume. A good rule of thumb is to arrange the volunteer experience into two categories: Hours per week (long-term) and hours per project (short-term). For instance, if someone volunteers 20 hours per week at an animal shelter it’s as if they have a long-term, part-time job. On the other hand, someone who built websites and blogs from scratch for various charitable organizations may have spent 160 hours over 2 months, which is similar to a summer internship.

4 – Ask for a recommendation

New graduates may find it challenging to obtain the recommended number of references or recommendation letters required to apply to their dream job. Sometimes college professors will provide a letter of recommendation, but it will only be regarding the person’s ability as a student, not a worker in the field. Recent graduates should not experience trouble receiving a letter of recommendation from a volunteer position, assuming that they were a long-time volunteer and worked on a regular basis.

Long-term volunteers gain a number of valuable skills, most of which have to do with people and socialization. People skills and all of the subsets thereof are probably the single most important thing for young professionals to advertise on their resume. Almost every profession requires some amount of socialization and conflict resolution, even if the majority of communications conducted are by email or phone. Legitimate volunteer experience can demonstrate those social skills and the work ethic required to see a project through from start to finish, both of which are valuable to future employers.

Robyn Scott is a private tutor with Orange County, CA tutoring company TutorNerds LLC. She has a BA from the University of California, Irvine and a MA from the University of Southampton, UK.

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