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?

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