Fiona Christie: Host organisations know they need to offer clear benefits in return for work

Volunteering abroad has always been a popular choice for students and graduates, even prior to the tsunami disaster. But is it just the allure of overseas destinations that makes people want to volunteer? At The University of Manchester, we run several initiatives providing opportunities for students who want to make a difference to our local communities.

Volunteering abroad has always been a popular choice for students and graduates, even prior to the tsunami disaster. But is it just the allure of overseas destinations that makes people want to volunteer? At The University of Manchester, we run several initiatives providing opportunities for students who want to make a difference to our local communities.

One project called Manchester Student Volunteers (MSV) matches students with a range of community organisations in Greater Manchester. MSV manager, Andrea Rannard, says: "From my experience of working with students, there is a growing interest in gaining voluntary experience for a variety of reasons. Students are increasingly aware of the benefits of volunteering, including CV enhancement, generic and specific skill development, gaining contacts and access to paid positions, but also to widen their student experience by getting involved in the local community. Community groups welcome having students work on projects and benefit immensely from the enthusiasm students inject into the organisation."

The secret to running successful volunteering schemes is to recognise that if people are going to work for nothing, then the hosting organisations need to offer other clear benefits in return for the work. Childline, for example, provides its volunteer telephone counsellors excellent training. Much of the training and experience volunteers gain either at home or abroad can provide them with much needed skills for their careers in the long term. For example, gaining counselling skills can enhance one's chances of getting into social work.

The Kaleidoscope Fair in Manchester is a great example of a University responding to its students' interest in volunteering, taking time out and having longer-term careers in the public or voluntary sector. It's called Kaleidoscope because of the diversity of the opportunities available. As a Careers Consultant, I think it's really important for students and graduates to think long and hard about who they want to work for and what they want to do. Our event gives them plenty of exciting options.

Public sector careers continue to be popular among graduates who are seeking a career they believe in. Recent research published by High Fliers confirms this when it reports how many graduates felt that they could not work for a "large, faceless organisation" and were "concerned that major employers aren't socially responsible" (The Graduates of 2004 - a Disillusioned Generation).

So what of opportunities in the public sector? In general, public sector employment is continuing to expand strongly despite talk of recruitment problems in certain fields such as social work, environmental health, and particularly in local government because so many current employees are nearing retirement age. But finding the path into the public services can be a problem for graduates outside of the main entry routes like teaching and the civil service. Different parts of the public sector tend to have their own particular entry routes and these do not always make it easy for graduates. There certainly are concerns that while the Civil Service fast stream, the NHS Management scheme and the NDGP for Local Government offer really good pathways, other parts of government are not as good in promoting themselves. Local government offers 500 different careers but isn't very good at shouting about them.

So it looks like there are still plenty of opportunities in the public sector for graduates. And the willingness that many people have to volunteer at home and abroad is good news for public sector careers which often have an impulse to altruism as a prerequisite.

With 2005 being the "Year of Volunteer", the Government is promoting the importance of active citizenship and assessing the impact of volunteering on the national economy. Peter Hawkins, a careers guru and writer of the "Art of Building Windmills", argues for the ideal for a balanced life being WPLG - Working, Playing, Learning, Giving. From the evidence of recent events it looks like people are taking the "Giving" part seriously and not just in terms of money.

Fiona Christie is a Careers Consultant, Business, Careers and Community Division, The University of Manchester

The Kaleidoscope Careers and Information Fair for the voluntary and public sectors takes place on Wednesday, 23 February at Manchester Academy, Oxford Road, Manchester, 11am-4pm. For more details, visit: www.manchester.ac.uk/businessenterprise/recruittalent/events/fairs/kaleidoscope

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