Volunteering – a sustainable alternative to paid work?
Volunteering is great, isn’t it? Volunteers gain valuable skills to develop their career, and employers get free labour. Everyone wins.
Who’s that chuckling at the back? Ah yes, I see you, cultural sector entrant. Welcome to the discussion.
Volunteering allows you to explore your interests, make a few friends, and gain some skills. It benefits the sector you want to work for, and employers get to share their skills and increase capacity . However, it is not a sustainable alternative to paid work, which is what many organisations in the cultural sector are using it as.
Many of my friends gleefully graduated from university with a Bachelor of Arts degree, optimistic to prove those who consistently told them that they would be unemployable, wrong. Fast forward a few months, scrolling down jobs lists to find that to be successful for interview they need at least 2 years’ experience in a relevant role.
And then they receive another failed application.
And then they realise that the only internships or opportunities available to them are unpaid.
You start to cry into your cornflakes at 1pm and curse your friend who chose to do economics and their 32k starting salary.
What a start into the working world! All the fresh passion for your subject sapped out by the impossible job market. Although, I know I am guilty of over generalising. It is not impossible if you have the money to pay the rent and volunteer at the same time. And who has this money? I think the focus on increasing diversity in museums highlights that question, although I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.
This over reliance on volunteers perpetuates problems in the sector. One of my directors, Charlie Pratley, wrote an article on this for the Museums’ Journal in 2015. She discusses the problems and solutions articulately, and it provoked impassioned responses;
“I personally would walk over hot coals to give the employer in my next interview exactly what they want but somehow I doubt I will have the opportunity to develop those skills. I keep chasing that dream job as an Education and Outreach Officer (or Community Outreach Officer, or similar job title) but find that blasted Catch 22 will never go away.”
Anonymous, MA Member
I discuss others’ frustration at the system, because I myself had been lucky enough to stumble across Culture Syndicates at a careers event at university. They talked about paying staff to carry out work in museums, and I couldn’t believe my ears. I applied for their paid internship scheme, and whilst unsuccessful at interview, they employed me as a freelance heritage assistant. This enabled me to train in several different heritage organisations. I became so employable under their training, that they gave me a full time job!
I realise that I am biased towards the Culture Syndicates model, but alternative models of training must be undertaken by the cultural sector so that it doesn’t stagnate. Culture Syndicates are also free of constrains faced by some organisations, such as recruitment freezes and qualification-based pay scales. But the numbers speak for themselves: of all 28 freelancers and interns that have worked for Culture Syndicates, 16 have gone on to be employed in the cultural sector, and the rest are either in further education or are employed outside of the cultural sector. It’s still a developing model; we are exploring ways to open opportunities to a more diverse range of people and will not find the panacea to barriers museum face.
There must be a distinction between those who have a secure income and are volunteering to explore their passions and interests, and those volunteering because the sector demands that they give up their time to gain skills needed to even be considered for an interview. The absolute minimum should be that these volunteers have a clear learning structure in which they have measurable goals and achievements that are gained by the end of their work.
#volunteersweek is a great opportunity to recognise the sacrifices and successes made by volunteers for the good of the sector. However, it also must provoke a discussion of the ripple effect that an over reliance on unpaid work can have on the job market.
Lizzie Irving is Marketing and Operations Coordinator for Culture Syndicates