Volunteering, unpaid internships, work experience….different names but the basic idea is the same – giving up your time for free in exchange for gaining skills, experience, and in some cases, a paid job.
This week I spoke to four individuals who all managed to volunteer their way into a paid job: Sefa Nkyi (radio), Anthony Temple (youth work), Adeboun Banjo (housing), and Miles Willis (photography).
Even if you already have a bias against working for free due to the whole unpaid internships issue (I’ll cover this in future), I urge you to keep an open mind as you read because if it worked for one person, it could very well work for you!
Sefa Nkyi (28) – Assistant Manager, Reprezent Radio / Presenter, DJ & Voiceover Artist (@LynnikeandSefa)
“My first volunteering role actually started when I forced myself into working with BRIT FM [while studying at the Brit School]. I was a year younger than all the other students and radio wasn’t even my major at the time but I was desperate so I convinced the teacher to let me get involved!
After university I then went on to apply for work experience at BBC Radio 1Xtra; I was there officially for a week but then went on to stalk the producer I worked with, begging her to let me come in more regularly to just sit and help. She was lovely and we had a really good relationship so she allowed me to come in. I did that for approximately six months before being recommended to become a paid member of staff as a Freelance BA (Broadcast Assistant).
The volunteering was a very deliberate strategy to get a job; I wanted to work there so badly, I wasn’t about to walk in and leave after just a week! I made the most of it by talking to people and forming good relationships with members of staff that were able to give me advice on how to get the job I wanted, who to talk to and how to talk to them. I was always going above what was asked of me and was never afraid to do a challenge or task that was given to me.
Financially, I didn’t solely rely on just volunteering – I had a part time job in retail, two days a week, which kept me going. I definitely don’t think I would have my job today had I not done some volunteering initially. In this industry you will almost always find someone who volunteered before getting to where they wanted to be. It’s an essential part of gaining experience in the field you desire.
If you are passionate about a job or an industry and it’s the only industry you can see yourself working is, then do not be put off by the thought of not getting paid. We all have bills to pay, so of course that is a factor when considering working for free, but no volunteer job will require seven days a week from you – get yourself something part time to help financially and work your a*** off at your volunteer job to make sure they don’t forget you and don’t want you to leave!”
Anthony Temple (19) – Youth Work Apprentice, Salmon Youth Centre
“I first started volunteering at Salmon a little over a year ago, just before I started the college course I had to leave.
I had been attending Salmon for about two years as a young person and I wanted to get more involved with the centre and give back to Salmon because they had provided me with trips, opportunities and a safe place to hang out with friends. Also, I had a friend who had started volunteering and when he spoke about what they got up to, it sounded like a lot of fun and made me want to volunteer more.
After five or six months of volunteering I found that I really enjoyed working with young people and realised I wanted to work with young people as a career. From this point on I felt like I had found what I had been searching for for a long time, and I decided to step my game up in all aspects of my life. I started looking at volunteering as an amazing opportunity to develop my youth work skills and experience before starting any kind of youth work course.
I made the most of my volunteering by taking every opportunity thrown at me, such as going on courses, taking part in the Three Peaks Challenge and going along with members of staff to represent the youth centre at special events. I got involved with as many different departments as possible because I felt like the more situations I threw myself into, the more experience I would gain, regardless of how uncomfortable I felt.
When I first started volunteering my mother supported me financially because I was in college and was also receiving £30 a week EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance). After dropping out of college I then went on JSA (Job Seekers Allowance) and I had to wait for about three or four months for the paid apprenticeship opportunity to open up at Salmon while I continued volunteering.
I stumbled upon youth work through volunteering, so without it I would probably be working in a retail job and feel like I had poor career prospects, because I can’t imagine anything worse than working somewhere you hated turning up to. I once heard someone say if you find a job where you are doing what you love, then it’s not work, and that’s how I feel about my apprenticeship.
I found that through volunteering I have improved my people skills, making it easier to get along with people socially. It has also opened my eyes to the things that happen around the world and increased my knowledge, and I found it very rewarding.”
Adeboun Banjo (34) – Housing Support Worker
“I started volunteering in 2010 after completing a course in Housing Management. After the course, the college sent students for interview to gain a voluntary placement position.
I got the placement for two days a week but I chose to volunteer for five days in order to be able to gain more experience and understand the field more. I had always wanted to work in housing so I thought that by volunteering, I could give myself an edge over other candidates.
I volunteered as an Assistant Housing Officer within the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham and my role involved helping the Housing Officer carry out viewings, home visits to tenants, and signing on tenants on properties, as well as assisting with some admin work.
Financially, it was tough at the beginning because I had a temporary job I was doing before I got the voluntary role which I had to stop because it was quite far for me to travel to and I couldn’t fit it in and do the voluntary work at the same time.
I volunteered for almost seven months before I was offered a paid job with the same organisation and I stayed there until I was made redundant last year. The volunteering contributed to me getting the job and it also built up my CV. I would advise anyone to go for it so you can increase in experience and knowledge in your field.”
Miles Willis (37) – Freelance Photographer (www.mileswillis.co.uk)
“I first started volunteering after leaving a particularly unsatisfying role in 2003. I knew I wanted to change my career direction but didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. My career was heading in a corporate management direction but my passion has always been photography. I saw volunteering as the best way to try new roles, increase my experience and hopefully demonstrate my ability to prospective employers.
I volunteered for a few different organisations – I started helping out at a few charities, really just to try something different, and then I started volunteering at Getty Images, the largest photo agency in the world. I actually first went for an interview but didn’t get the job due to lack of experience. I used the interview situation to present the idea of volunteering – I think they were a little taken aback as it’s pretty unconventional, but they eventually agreed!
I worked three days a week at Getty Images; I started at 10am and worked until 5pm and then went straight to UBS in Liverpool Street to start my 6pm to 2am shift in corporate graphics. The UBS work actually paid pretty well so I was quite comfortable financially whilst volunteering, but it was physically tough and my social life suffered, but I knew it wouldn’t be forever.
The experience was all about learning the role and presenting myself in a way that if a job came up I would be the first person they considered. After three months I was called in and they offered me a permanent position; the very next day I handed in my notice at UBS.
Photography is a tough area to break into but volunteering set the groundwork for my freelance business some 10 years later. The contacts I made at my time at Getty are proving invaluable today. It is essential that any volunteering benefits you as well as your employer. Choose your employer carefully, ideally in the sector you want to move into, and set yourself objectives and a time frame for you to achieve them – this will help you prevent wasting any time.
Employers want to see dedication, passion and a good nature, so make every effort to present yourself in the best way possible, and make as many contacts as you can – you never know when you might need them later down the line.”