Research Findings

Volunteer work increases income but only among workers in higher-level occupations

, and
January 30, 2020

Many people today, spend some of their spare time doing volunteer work in the belief that it will be looked upon favorably by employers and lead to better-paying jobs. 

A recent analysis of longitudinal data from the United Kingdom published in Social Science Research confirms that they are correct, but only for those with jobs in the “salariat” – professionals, managers, administrators and the like – while working class volunteers pay a penalty for their altruism.

This topic is of considerable interest today because recent developments in the economies of advanced industrial societies have changed the social contract between employers and employees. As employment has become more precarious, workers find they can no longer rely on a system where opportunities are defined internally by tenure or rank; instead, they must market themselves. Under constant pressure to prepare for the next job, they are advised to network assiduously, learn new skills by returning to school, and even take classes on writing persuasive job applications and performing well in interviews. In some cases they are advised to take unpaid or marginally paid positions such as internships or to perform volunteer work. 

Volunteer work is popularly understood as unpaid labor donated to another person or cause in an organizational setting. Most people assume that a volunteer is making a sacrifice by giving something for nothing in return. In reality, volunteers are rewarded for their efforts, not least in the form of gratitude from those they help, the approval of other volunteers, family and friends, and the “warm glow” that comes from knowing that they have “done the right thing”. 

But aside from personal satisfactions are there more tangible rewards?  Specifically, do regular volunteers perform better in the job market than those who do not volunteer or do so only occasionally? Are they better paid than non-volunteers and is it certain that this is due to their volunteer work rather than some other characteristic? 

It is widely believed that having volunteer experience on one’s resume is a plus when it comes to competing in the job market or asking for a raise. In addition, a sizeable proportion of volunteers say they are hoping to make contacts with those who will help them with their career. Employees look favorably on volunteers.  

LinkedIn, a popular professional networking site based in the United States with members in over 135 countries, recently added a field for members to list volunteer activities in their profiles. A survey sponsored by the organization had discovered that forty-one percent of employers rated volunteer work as equal in importance to paid work when selecting new employees. One in five had based a recent hiring decision on the candidate’s volunteer work. 

In a recent field experiment, pairs of fictitious applications for real job vacancies were sent to prospective employers. The applications were identical except for the inclusion of volunteer work on one of the pairs.  The applicants with volunteer work in their profile had a thirty-three per cent higher probability of being invited for a job interview.

There are at least three reasons why volunteer experience might be an asset in the labor market. First, through their volunteer work, people learn hard skills, such as office management, carpentry, or software usage, as well as soft skills like client relations, good communication and teamwork. 

Second, volunteering is a means of broadening one’s network of acquaintances at a time when networking has become increasingly important for job seekers. Research shows that compared to non-volunteers, volunteers do indeed have more connections to job-holders in occupations and work organizations other than their own; they belong to more voluntary associations; and they have more socially-diverse networks.

Third, employers often supplement formal evaluations of an employee’s efficiency and reliability, with judgements based on more indirect indicators of value, such as volunteer work. This supposedly attests to the employee’s superior motivation and commitment.  

A recent study used seven waves of longitudinal data from the British Household Panel Survey (1996-2008) to examine the relation between volunteer work and earned income (wages and salaries). On average, volunteers were found to earn only slightly more than non-volunteers. In this respect, the study confirmed results reported in a number of previous studies. 

However, an important new finding was that the economic benefits of volunteering were restricted to members of the “salariat” or workers in professional, higher technical, administrative and managerial occupations. Workers in manual skilled and unskilled occupations–typically thought of as traditional working class jobs–saw no benefit from volunteer work. Neither did employees holding intermediate level occupations–those that are routine, non-manual and lower technical, manual and supervisory. Indeed, workers in the lower classes who volunteered earned less than those who did not. 

This study therefore helps answer the question as to whether volunteer work is a complement to paid work benefitting the worker or is akin to work performed by an employee who moonlights on another job in such a way as to impair performance on the main job. In fact, it provides a mixed answer to that question: at the higher levels of the occupational ladder volunteer work is beneficial while at the lower end it can be harmful. 

But why should the “salariat” benefit more? One reason is that the “capital” which volunteer work creates is only useful for employees in occupations where reputation, soft skills, social contacts and the like have any value. In the lower-ranked occupations, income is largely determined structurally by factors such as unionization, minimum wages and performance, such as piece-work. 

Another reason is that middle and upper class volunteers are most likely to be chosen or be selected for volunteer assignments, such as serving on a committee or governing board, that generate assets of more value in the labour market. As with paid jobs, volunteer tasks are distinguished according to their rank, as measured by criteria such as power, prestige, autonomy and agreeableness. For example, in the United Kingdom, professionals and managers who volunteer are less likely to engage in tasks such as food preparation and more likely to give presentations, offer advice, serve on a committee, or help with administration. 

Middle and upper class volunteers also tend to avoid “hands on” volunteer work such as providing services directly to the needy, focusing instead on making these services possible for others to provide by organizing and supervising fund-raising efforts and soliciting government agencies, businesses, and philanthropic organizations for help. At the other end of the scale, craft workers and operatives are more likely to do the manual, routine and relatively unskilled work of maintenance, helping out at events, providing care or transportation, or coaching youth teams.

A final explanation for the differential effects of volunteer work is that social class determines which kinds of organizations people volunteer for. It is possible that working class people are more likely to volunteer for organizations that provide few useful skills, social contacts, or that send the wrong signals to employers. They acquire less capital because of their choice of volunteer work. 

The message the findings of this study sends is that, for individuals who have a college education and are aspiring to have a career in the “salariat”, undertaking volunteer work during and after college probably “pays off”. For workers in the intermediate and lower classes, although volunteer work can provide all kinds of benefits, higher wages is not one of them. 

Read more

John Wilson, Noemi Mantovan and Robert M. Sauer. “The economic benefits of volunteering and social class” in Social Science Research 2019.

Image: Wikemedia Commons (CC Share Alike 2.0)

No Comments

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.