Rowena Forbes: 'From a graduate's perspective, the voluntary sector holds real promise'

The Manchester Leadership Programme, Careers & Employability Division, The University of Manchester

The UK's voluntary sector has never been so expansive. The number of employees in this area has increased by 26 per cent over 10 years to 611,000 and the sector now includes over 2 per cent of the UK's overall paid workforce, according to Voluntary Sector Almanacs 2006 and 2007.

Nor does the situation look set to change. The Government officially raised the sector's profile by creating the Office of the Third Sector in 2006, with further plans mooted last summer to invest over £515m in this area. The Conservative Party's Social Justice Policy Group has also advocated greater use of the third sector in public services.

From a graduate's perspective, the sector holds particular promise. It already employs the highest proportion of degree holders at 33 per cent, beating the public sector's 32.7 per cent and 15.5 per cent in the private sector. The proportion of professional roles is also high, with 43 per cent of voluntary sector workers employed in "associate professional and technical" or "managerial and senior official" positions. But what exactly are these jobs, and what future opportunities will be available?

At The University of Manchester, Fiona Christie, a careers consultant, recently conducted a national research project, funded by the Higher Education Careers Service Unit, looking at the nature and range of graduate opportunities in the voluntary and community sector. Her report, to be published this year, indicates that employment opportunities are incredibly diverse. As well as traditional front-line roles dealing directly with communities and environments, many professional supporting roles sought-after by graduates exist in management, marketing, events, fundraising, policy-making, researching, recruitment and more.

True, there are downfalls. Many charitable organisations tend to be small (54 per cent have fewer than 25 employees) and have small budgets (56 per cent have an annual income of less than £10,000). Smaller teams mean flatter structures, with limited chances for career progression, while smaller incomes mean lower salaries.

Christie's research, however, indicates that some roles in this sector have salaries comparable to the public and private sector, particularly at graduate entry level. Of course, should the big bucks prove irresistible, moving to the corporate arena at a later stage is always possible.

Future employment in this sector is likely to be driven by current skills shortages. A quarter of employers report having "hard to fill" vacancies, especially in social care, youth work and health care, while skills gaps have been identified in legal knowledge, fundraising, leadership and the strategic use of IT according to the UK Voluntary Sector Skills Survey 2007.

The main problem seems to be finding these opportunities. Small charities often favour their websites over the national press for advertising vacancies, and, although the National Council for Voluntary Organisations is working on setting up structured career entry opportunities across the sector, graduate entry schemes are currently very limited in number.

Pre-graduation volunteering experience can help. This not only opens students' eyes to the wider range of careers out there, but can also provide a foot in the door; charities often advertise their vacancies internally. It may even make the difference when applying for jobs; organisations often look for evidence that applicants understand the volunteering "ethos".

Just as graduate jobs in this sector are wide and varied, student volunteering opportunities can be diverse, too. Andrea Rannard runs Manchester Student Volunteers (MSV) at The University of Manchester, which links students with overseas and UK-based volunteering projects. As part of MSV, four final-year students in accountancy with business information systems are currently developing a website to raise international awareness about the slums of Nairobi, where recent Manchester graduate Sammy Gitau (see page 2) is undertaking pioneering work to empower slum residents through the provision of resource centres. The old website,, is set to be relaunched by the students this spring.

The key is to be proactive. Students interested in working in non-corporate careers really need to do their research; look beyond the big charity names; get advice from careers services and get involved in voluntary work. The University of Manchester's upcoming Kaleidoscope Fair is aimed at students and graduates from any UK institution who are interested in careers, volunteering and work experience in the public and voluntary sectors. Information, advice and opportunities are all available for those looking for an "alternative" career.

The University of Manchester's Kaleidoscope Fair takes place on 6 March, 11am–3pm, The Sugden Centre, Grosvenor Street. Find out more at: www.manchester.

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