Graduate Recruitment: How working for nothing can pay off: Stephen Pritchard looks at why graduates work as volunteers and finds that long-term pragmatism can win out over short-term poverty

TO MOST students, the idea that they should work for nothing after graduation would seem peculiar, and not a little unrealistic. Financial worries often mean that finding paid work as soon as possible is the immediate priority.

But the days of guaranteed post-college work are long gone and there is little sign of a quick fall in graduate unemployment. One in five graduates could still be without work by the end of the year. Many more may have to take jobs for which they are overqualified.

In this climate, voluntary work is an alternative worth considering. It need not be charity-related, although this is a valuable source of placements. The idea is to gain experience that will interest - or impress - potential employers, although there are other reasons for taking this path.

Unemployment is a testing experience. Careers advisers warn that graduates are not immune to the loss of self-confidence and feelings of isolation that affect many on the dole. According to Jane Simm, careers adviser at Sheffield University, 'Voluntary work is especially necessary for people lacking in confidence and self-esteem. It is one way of coping with unemployment.'

Unpaid work increases a person's employability through the acquisition of new skills, and provides contacts who might help with leads for unadvertised vacancies.

Work experience should not, however, be seen as a sure way into a paid position. Firms often state explicitly that they have no vacancies when they agree to a placement. But should a position become available, there is much to be said for being in the right place at the right time.

Some graduate careers have always treated unpaid work experience as almost mandatory, while others have thought it a substantial advantage. Social work offers a good example of the former.

Richard Farrah, Social Services Directorate Personnel Manager for Bradford City Council, explains: 'There are limited social work opportunities for people without professional qualifications. And colleges like people to have had some experience before they even start the Diploma in Social Work. It is difficult to get that because there is less money around for local authorities to take on temporary staff.'

According to Dr Richard Firth, director of the careers service at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, experience is valuable for all types of work. 'Shadowing, vacation work and placements before or after graduation can all offer useful experience. Many graduates established in their careers would be willing to help potential entrants, by passing on advice based on their own experience and giving them a flavour of the work they do.' A local law firm, for example, may not be able to take on an articled clerk. But it could give valuable office experience prior to law school.

One way to find a placement, especially in industry, is to approach firms and volunteer for specific short-term tasks. 'It is part of a creative job search,' says Jane Simm. 'Is there a project that you could do for a firm for free? This approach may add something to your CV, and is a good way of gaining skills such as written and verbal communications, team work, problem-solving and computing.' It is also important to bear in mind that experience with more than one firm means more than one set of contacts.

Employers also value work experience even in sectors where it is not a requirement. An example of this is the leisure industry.

Tim Longden, responsible for graduate recruitment at Bass Leisure, says: 'We look for people with experience of working in the industry. That would include bar work. It bolsters their confidence and makes us feel a bit more confident that their (career) choice is a considered one.' Applicants have the advantage here that paid work in a pub is as useful as unpaid shadowing in an office.

A different approach is to volunteer to work for a charity, but in a capacity that can also be carried out in a commercial organisation. Administration, PR and research departments of non-profit organisations all carry out work similar to their commercial sector equivalents.

Richard Firth says: 'The voluntary sector can give experience of specific job functions that could lead to paid work in a similar position in the longer term.' There are a number of charities that organise placements on an expenses-only basis; local details are available from careers services.

Graduates can also gain experience via government schemes. The 26-week Graduate Gateway programme aims to help graduates to find work in small business, and is organised by Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs).

Generally, the first three or four weeks are spent in formal management training, with the remaining time spent with a 'host' firm, usually on a specific project. The scheme may not run in all areas, and graduates should check availability with their local Job Centres.

From April, the Government will introduce Training for Work, replacing both Employment Training and Employment Action. It is aimed at the long-term unemployed, and is meant to be less rigid than either ET or Graduate Gateway. Graduates should again contact their Job Centre for details.

Graduates outside a government programme should take care that work experience does not affect their entitlement to unemployment benefit or income support. The Department of Employment is unable to give general advice, since each application for benefit is assessed individually. However, a DoE spokeswoman said that graduates taking an unpaid placement must be 'available for and actively seeking work'; provided an applicant meets those conditions, benefit will be paid. Graduates should seek advice from their Unemployment Benefit Office before committing themselves to a work placement.

In recent weeks the Secretary of State for Employment, Gillian Shephard, has indicated that the Government may change benefit rules to make it easier for the unemployed to take on voluntary work or training.

Even if it means losing benefit for a time, work experience might still be worthwhile. As Richard Firth advises: 'Just half a day spent shadowing can be very valuable.'

Graduates can continue to use university careers services after they leave college. A mutual aid scheme allows graduates to seek advice at any Higher Education careers office in the country. There are also two career helplines: Bristol 0272 303149, Thursdays 3pm-8pm; Glasgow 041-553 4177, Wednesdays 3pm-8pm.

(Photograph omitted)

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