Monday, 20 January 2014

The dark side of volunteerism

A colleague forwarded me an article recently called ‘Unpaid interns with guns.’ It is about the increasing use of unpaid interns and volunteers in the U.S. to perform jobs normally done by full-time police officers, including making arrests and conducting investigations. While many of these volunteers are retired police officers, half are “under 40 years old, and a quarter are under 30.” One of the reasons the author puts forward for why people would be willing to take on this work for free is because they see it as a way to get their foot in the door at a time when many law enforcement organizations are experiencing cut backs and hiring freezes.

There are many benefits to volunteerism for individuals, the organizations they volunteer with and society as a whole. From a career perspective, volunteering can provide an opportunity for someone to develop skills, as well as gain experience, make connections and possibly learn about what it would be like to work in a particular career field. Indeed, these are the reasons why career advisors often encourage volunteering.

For individuals, the benefits of volunteering extend beyond career-related benefits to include feeling positive about doing something productive and contributing to one’s community, which can increase self-confidence and self-esteem, and meeting and becoming friends with people who have similar values. From a broader organizational and social perspective, volunteers help organizations provide services or reach more people than they might otherwise and help to build community.

We’ve all heard about these benefits but we rarely hear or talk about the negative aspects of volunteerism. The author of the article which prompted me to think about some of the unintended negative consequences of volunteerism points to one of them – a loss of paid work. He writes that perhaps cash-strapped law enforcement organizations that use volunteers “don’t have the budget to pay another cop at the moment, but when volunteers are willing to do what once was compensated work for free, getting the money to hire more paid employees tends not to be an employer’s top priority.” In addition to displacing paid workers, in some instances using volunteers for work normally done for pay erodes the concept of labour value.

Since I’ve been working in career services, I’ve seen an increasing number of employers recognizing the value and importance of students’ volunteer work, which is a positive thing in my opinion. But when volunteerism becomes an expectation, those who cannot afford to volunteer much or at all because they have to work in order to pay for tuition, books and all the other expenses that comes with being a student are put at a further disadvantage.

So where do I stand on this issue? I believe there is a place for volunteerism in society and that it is something that we can benefit from individually and collectively. I also believe that, for a number of reasons including those mentioned above, some jobs should not be left to volunteers. Policing is certainly one of them.

What do you think?

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Even so-called planned careers aren’t linear

On New Year’s day as I was preparing a turkey dinner for some of my family I heard an interview with Chris Hadfield by Jian Ghomeshi, host of CBC Radio’s Q. Many people know Chris Hadfield as the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station, a post he held during a five-month mission last year. After three space missions and over 20 years as an astronaut, Hadfield announced his retirement last summer. In the fall he came out with a book called An astronaut’s guide to life on earth.

What I found most interesting about the interview was Hadfield’s career story and the career advice he had to offer based on his experiences. Hadfield decided at the age of nine that he wanted to be an astronaut. As he put it, he saw Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon and decided that one day he was going to walk on the moon, which he hasn’t done yet he admitted but that’s beside the point.

Now, it is far from the norm for someone to end up in the career they dreamed about when they were just a child. Based on their research, John Krumboltz and Al Levin, authors of Luck is no accident: Making the most of happenstance in your life and career, posit that “only about two percent of the people claim to be working now in the occupation they had planned when they were eighteen years old.”

Even though Hadfield overcame the odds and succeeded in achieving his childhood dream of becoming an astronaut (only four of about 5,300 were chosen), he stressed that his career has been anything but linear. “It was so confused and disrupted,” he said. For example, he took a year off to work and travel. He lost heart several times, including after the Challenger accident in 1996, the year after his first space mission.

So what career advice did Hadfield have to offer? Being that the title of his memoir is An astronaut’s guide to life on earth, Ghomeshi asked him what lessons he wanted to share with listeners. The first thing he said was to “give yourself something in life that you really want to do. What is exciting? What is the thing in the distance that, if things work out, you see yourself doing ten years from now or 20 years or whatever” and then “figure out how you can start nudging yourself along, one little decision at a time.” He also made three additional very important points. First, “you can change direction.” If at some point you realize the direction you’re heading in or the goal you’re pursuing is no longer a fit for you, look for something else. Second, “you don’t have to go straight there.” There may be opportunities along the way that you want to pursue, whether these take you in a different direction or are simply a detour. And third, “don’t make that thing be your measure of self-worth.” If you have a goal but don’t reach it, don’t think of yourself as a failure and as everything you’ve done to reach your goal as a waste of time.

Hadfield was a test pilot before becoming an astronaut and a fighter pilot before that. He said he was happy doing both and if he had never become an astronaut he still would have been happy with his achievements. No one can predict the future, so not letting your self-worth get wrapped up in things in the future that may never happen, I feel, is great career advice.