It’s no secret that getting a job after university is likely to be a difficult feat, so it’s now more than ever that students are wanting to stand out from the crowd; the most practical way being volunteer work. This can take many forms, some good but some not so good. Usually, it’s a win-win situation for both parties involved; organisations save money and get some work done, whilst students gains some hands-on experience.
A volunteer position should be an enriching experience that benefits both you and the organisation, not one-sided cheap labour
Student volunteering can be a rewarding and highly valuable experience. Here are a few of the perks that pop up along the way:
Volunteer work adds something substantial to your CV. Employers look at hundreds of CVs when hiring, all saying the same thing 90% of the time. Highlighting the fact that you have gone above and beyond your degree by volunteering shows that you have initiative and ambition.
You get to gain some actual hands-on experience. For those studying nutrition (rather than dietetics) clinical placement is not compulsory, so volunteering is crucial to get a chance to put all that theory into practice. It also gives you a bit of a head start when you see the dreaded ‘two years experience within a similar position will be highly regarded’ line pop up in job ads.
You get a chance to network. Networking is often an intimidating but necessary skill to have in the working world. Volunteering allows you to make new connections and meet people, if not those already in an established career, then at least other students who are going to one-day be working alongside you.
You might get a job out of it! This one I have not personally experienced. Although it is possible, it is a definite rarity!
You get a chance to sort out what you do and don’t like. There are so many possible avenues to go down, from clinical to private practice, research, public health, sport and fitness, entrepreneurship ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ style, there really is a lot to do. If it wasn’t for my various volunteer experiences, I would have no idea of which direction I wanted to take my career in.
Of course, like all things in life, it’s not all sunshine and roses. I mentioned earlier that volunteering is usually a win-win for both parties, but not always. It’s important when you’re starting a new position that you find out exactly what it involves, just as you would for a paid job. There may be a contract involved for an agreed upon length of time, a privacy agreement to sign, or unexpected costs involved such as travel or parking. These factors all need to be considered before getting started.
Remember that your time is valuable…
It’s also important to point out the issue of exploitation in a volunteering environment. More often than not, you’re not getting paid, and your position may often be overlooked as insignificant. If you’re continually asked to do things that aren’t part of your role (i.e. coffee runs, cleaning, being someone’s personal assistant for their private life) then this is not on. A volunteer position should be an enriching experience that benefits both you and the organisation, not one-sided cheap labour.
If this is an experience that resonates with you and you feel as if you’re stuck in a role that wasn’t as planned, have a chat to your careers department at university. Volunteers are not protected under regular employee work agreements, but there are still rights in place. As a volunteer, we have the right to a safe work environment, a position description, training and orientation, reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses and confidentiality of information. For further detail check out Volunteer Australia.
These rights apply to those roles in a not-for-profit organisation. A student placement in a business is a new set of legislation altogether. Unpaid work can take the form of a work placement necessary for study, for example: in the Masters of Dietetics program; in which case it is agreed and understood that it is unpaid. However, working for a business in which an employment relationship exists and not getting paid is unlawful. Legislation requires that minimum wage awards are to be in place.
At the end of the day, the judgement call is up to you. If you are in an unpaid position but are reaping the benefits in terms of practical experience and mentorship, then good for you! Remember that your time is valuable, and that you have the power to make your role work for you. Ask questions, meet people, attend events, send emails and use it to your advantage.
Want to volunteer but not sure where to start? Head on over to not-for-profit organisations such as Nutrition Australia, Diabetes Australia or the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation. There are also often opportunities to help in research offices at universities and even look into private practices that take on students for work experience, just make sure you know your rights!