Boom for Britain's volunteer army as graduates face the dole

They are young, gifted and out of work: Britain's record number of graduates and A-grade A-level students. But instead of sitting on their haunches and signing on the dole queue, record numbers have enlisted in Britain's volunteer army.

Online applications for The National Young Volunteer Service have tripled and enquiries about Volunteer Services Overseas (VSO) youth schemes have doubled between December 2008 and March 2009. Oxfam saw a 20 per cent rise in volunteers over the past two years while Volunteer England says the number of inquiries has increased in 87 per cent of their volunteer centres this year.

A recent survey found that up to 40,000 of this year's 300,000 graduates will still be struggling to find work in six months' time. Meanwhile, there is a shortage of university places. Judith Brodie, UK director of VSO, said that part of the appeal of volunteering was that it also doubled up as work experience. "For young people there are worries about employment prospects," she said. "Volunteering is a positive and creative way of responding to that challenge."

Alison Bielecka, programme leader at Volunteer Development Scotland, added that people volunteering to get work experience and skills "do a really good job because they want to be as professional as possible".

According to a National Young Volunteer Service survey, 72 per cent of employers said volunteering could have a positive effect on an individual's career progression. Many volunteers would dispute that they are motivated solely by future career advancement though. "I am volunteering because I want to do something meaningful with my life," said Iona Bergius, a 23-year-old voluntary media assistant at Oxfam, and a recent Oxford University graduate.

Others are more pragmatic. Kavita Shanker, 23, an intern at Cancer Research UK, said: "I wanted to be part of the fight against cancer, but I also wanted to develop my skills in marketing. I don't think there's anything wrong with that."