Does volunteering give graduates the edge?

In the highly competitive, post-university job market employers are looking for more than just a good degree to choose between applicants. A recent study commissioned by Original Volunteers showed that getting involved in worthwhile projects could be just the thing to catch an employer’s attention.

Completed by a range of companies and organisations – both public and private – in the top 300 UK employer’s list, this study asked them to share their views on the value of volunteering and if it would improve a graduate’s chances of success in finding employment. These are the results…

Volunteering in the UK or abroad could increase a graduate’s chances of getting noticed, adding depth and variety of experience to help set them apart. And rightly so, employers can benefit from a well-rounded applicant who might have more to offer as a result.

While the economy is making a slow recovery, and graduate hiring is higher in most companies than it was in 2007, many of the employers that took part in the survey said they didn’t anticipate further increases. This probably means the competition isn’t likely to ease off any time soon. While a solid academic background and specific work experience is a good start, volunteering experience will help graduates to stand out at interview and could point to a candidate with a wealth of applicable skills.

The view that volunteering can be overly expensive, adding to the burden of university and living-cost debt was something that concerned some employers – but it definitely doesn’t have to be the case. A host of opportunities in the UK means volunteering doesn’t always involve leaving the country, and with the low-cost options offered by Original Volunteers, even travelling abroad can be done for much less than you might think.

That’s not the only good news. The study showed employers didn’t necessarily mind if the volunteering wasn’t directly related to their industries. A quick look at their corporate social responsibility programme might give graduates an edge with a few employers, but most understood that a commitment to volunteering could point towards a candidate with more rounded experience, character and good interpersonal skills however they chose to spend their volunteering time.

Overwhelmingly, employers thought that a candidate’s volunteering experience would be most useful if they promoted the benefits of it on their CV and at interview – by showing how their experiences translate to the job they are applying for. Showing the value of volunteering to the employer is the best way to make them take notice. Life experience, teamwork and empathy were the three skills identified by the employers as those most likely to emerge from volunteering and being able to articulate the value of these things is what they are looking for.

While employers clearly valued volunteering over a year spent travelling, this shouldn’t put candidates off going away – incorporating some volunteer work into a gap year is a good way of adding variety to the trip, at the same time as adding some variety to a CV. Local charity work and overseas volunteering were the two kinds of volunteering that employers thought added the most value to someone’s application – so including a little of both types would be the best strategy for a graduate looking to grab the attention of potential employers.

Along with it being a good way to establish an applicant’s values, the volunteering choices that they make provide employers with an insight into their motivations, priorities and ethics and ultimately help them to decide on how good a fit they could be. By showing an employer the value of their volunteering experience, it’s clear that graduates could give themselves a clear advantage over the competition in the race to find the right job.

How to make the most of your volunteering experience

Promote the benefits on your CV and at interview – show an employer what the transferable skills are. High pressure situations, mediation, multi-tasking, communication? Let them know. In fact, while you’re at it why not give your CV a health check? “Save the Student” has some great advice and tips to help you get your CV into great shape.

  • Think about what your choice of volunteering says about you and your values.
  • Promote the benefits on your CV and at interview – show an employer what the transferable skills are. High pressure situations, mediation, multi-tasking, communication? Let them know.
  • Add volunteering work into your gap-year between other trips to gain a variety of experiences and skills.
  • Research the CSR programmes of the companies you might want to work for – they could give valuable insight into what kind of volunteering would give you the biggest advantage.
  • Remember that volunteering doesn’t need to be expensive – consider doing something closer to home or make use of low cost volunteering opportunities in other countries.

How to attract graduates with the best experience

  • Investigating the impact of volunteering on a candidate at interview is a really good way to find out how well they adapt to new challenges and how well they learn from them, as well as how well they can articulate the value of that experience.
  • Graduates who have volunteered could be more likely to bring a well-developed skill set. Acknowledging the potential rewards of volunteering in your recruitment literature and HR process is integral to attracting those graduates.
  • Use volunteering experience as an insight into the applicant’s values. It could be the key to deciding whether they are the right fit for the job and company culture and values.