It is widely believed that volunteering will improve workers’ job prospects. The logic is that volunteering offers opportunities to expand work-related experience, develop new skills, and build a network of professional contacts. For young people with little history of paid employment it can also signal that a person would be a reliable and motivated employee. In spite of these widespread views about volunteering, surprisingly little research has been done on the effect of volunteering on employment and pay in the United States. This study is intended to help fill this gap.
This analysis examines volunteering as a pathway to employment during a period of high unemployment, when it is reasonable to expect the beneficial effects of volunteering to be especially pronounced. Unemployment rose from 4.6 percent in 2007 to a peak of more than 10 percent in the beginning of 2010.1 There was an even larger rise in long-term unemployment. In the years just before the recession, workers who were unemployed for more than 26 weeks comprised less than 1.0 percent of the labor market.2 However, the share of long-term unemployed increased to 4.2 percent of the labor force in 2010 and continued to be more than 3.0 percent of the labor market through 2012. In this context, the skills and contacts obtained through volunteering could be especially valuable.
Interestingly, rates of volunteering changed little in the recession. The overall rate edged up slightly, but did not rise back to its 2003-2005 level (see Figure 1). Likewise, the volunteer rates for young people (ages 16-24) and for the unemployed remained below the 2005 level throughout the recession and the following slow recovery. While this may be explained in part by a compositional effect (the unemployed in the downturn were a different group of people from those who had previously been unemployed), there clearly was no rush to volunteer in response to the downturn.
The causality of the relationship between employment and volunteering cannot be determined. It may be that people who are employed are more likely to volunteer compared to people not working, or it may be that people who volunteer are more likely to be employed. To directly address this question of the whether or not volunteering improves job prospects, the analysis estimated non-working individuals’ probability of being employed a year later if they volunteered during the 12-month period, using data from the CPS Volunteer Supplement conducted annually in the month of September.
The analysis pooled three years of data from the Volunteer Supplement and accompanying basic CPS survey for the month of September.
Table 2 shows that volunteering per se did not have a statistically significant effect on the marginal probability of being employed by the end of the period (column 1). However, the amount of volunteering did. Non-working individuals who volunteered 20 hours or more but less than 100 hours over a 12-month period were, on average, 6.8 percentage points more likely to be employed at the end of the 12 months, compared to individuals who did not volunteer. However, there were not statistically significant impacts on employment from volunteering a few hours (less than 20 hours per year). Interestingly, volunteering more than 100 hours was also not associated with a higher likelihood of employment. This suggests that people who volunteered a very large number of hours per year may not have been looking for employment, but rather view volunteer work as a substitute to paid work. For these individuals, the accumulation of human capital may be a relatively unimportant incentive.
The analysis looked at the employment effects of young people ages 18-25 years (last column). The estimated marginal effects from volunteering were relatively large (and negative for less than 100 volunteer hours per year), but because of small sample sizes, they were not found significantly different from zero. However, the analysis does suggest than volunteering a substantial number of hours (100 or more hours) may have a positive impact on employment, but with only 194 non-working, young individuals reporting volunteer hours in the sample, the estimates are associated with some degree of uncertainty. With inconclusive findings, more analysis is needed to determine whether volunteering is an effective way to increase human capital, build a professional network and signal employability to employers for young people entering the labor market during an economic recession.
With inconclusive findings, more analysis is needed to determine whether volunteering is an effective way to increase human capital, build a professional network and signal employability to employers for young people entering the labor market during an economic recession.
Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor