Volunteering helps you get a feel for a job before you commit to a career change, says Val Leveson

A few years ago I decided that I wanted to change my career. I realised that this would mean retraining, which would be expensive and time-consuming, so I wanted to be sure it was what I wanted to do.

I decided to volunteer for teaching English as a second language. I found that I enjoyed the contact with people but didn't particularly like the nuts and bolts of teaching vocabulary and grammar.

These realisations moved me to explore counselling as a career option. The fact that I had volunteered as an English teacher helped me get into my counselling programme of choice, and I have now embarked on a career that I am passionate about.

If I had gone straight into study to become qualified to teach English as a second language, the outcome would have been quite different - I would have wasted a lot of time and money.

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Volunteering helped me find my way to my new career - and it helped me get the experience I needed as a counsellor.

Pat Cody, practice leader at Careers New Zealand, had a similar experience. "I started in the career industry through volunteering," he says. "Sixteen years ago I was a town planner. I went to live in the UK and [volunteered] in the careers department at a university. I moved to Whangarei on my return to New Zealand and volunteered for Career Services.

"Two years later they had a vacancy, and 14 years later I have done my training and am still here. The volunteer work was so valuable, because previous to it people typecast me as a town planner. By having different experience through volunteering, I could develop other skills and convince others of them."

Volunteering has helped Cody in other ways: "I was unemployed when I came back from Britain - volunteering helped me break the isolation I felt in Whangarei.

"It is essential for human existence to have a sense of meaning, and so often we get it through work, even if it's not paid work."

Cody says that volunteer work gives you exposure to new professions, competencies, networks, and helps grow an understanding of a career that you're interested in. "It's an opportunity to try before you buy - a tactical way of going about things."

He says that volunteer work is particularly beneficial in the current business climate. "Many companies are risk-averse to taking people on. This is particularly true for young people and immigrants without New Zealand experience. The only limitation is [volunteer work] is not a job, it's an arrangement.

"Organisations need to realise that it's still a relationship, and that their intention on taking on a volunteer needs to be clear. All health and safety requirements connected to employment still apply.

"It's not about displacing others from the workplace. It is about insuring that the agreement meets both parties' needs."

But there are industries where volunteering would not be practical, particularly where there are safety and highly technical requirements.

"For example, panelbeaters need to have a sound training of the tools and chemicals they are using," Cody says. "But volunteers can be office help and observe the work they're interested in."

Volunteering can benefit you on the job front, agrees Tom O'Neil, managing director of Cv.co.nz. "It takes away the problem of getting experience without being offered that first job. For example, if you're looking for an accounting job, helping Lions, the church or any community organisation can give you both experience and valuable referees."

He says having volunteer work on your CV is a good thing. "What you do as a volunteer tells the employer a lot about you. It points to the type of person you are if you work for the Red Cross, SPCA or pick up rubbish on an island to help the environment."

He agrees that it also gives you the opportunity to see if you like a career. "I knew someone who studied landscape design for four years, only to find he really wanted to be an IT trainer ... volunteering [helps] you work out what your interests really are before you make an emotional, time and financial investment."

Like Cody, O'Neil says that volunteering helps you create strong networks and relationships that can mean career advancement. "Fifty per cent of jobs in New Zealand come from family and friends."

O'Neil says volunteering also helps you to increase your experience. "It's an opportunity to learn new processes/systems that you can sell to your next employer. It's a way of getting a leg up, particularly if the systems used in your present employment are dated."

Career coach Kaye Avery says volunteering is all about meaningful engagement with something and can be done at any stage of life. "It is a proactive way of getting a foot in the door of a field that interests you. There is also feel-good stuff involved. It's about getting meaning from something constructive."

She says there are industries where volunteers are critical: "The arts are an example. Without volunteers, people in that field wouldn't be able to do what they do."

Volunteering can also help you get experience for a first career and it can help people who are out of work to get back into employment.

Avery agrees that organisations need to be careful about how they take on volunteers and be clear about expectations of both parties. They need to be able to co-ordinate volunteers and attract positive people who are not too demanding and wanting to change things in the organisation.

Besides career development, volunteering can be a satisfying and altruistic activity. If you're not getting satisfaction or meaning from your job, it's a way of feeling some life purpose. "New Zealanders are good at volunteering," says Avery.

Organisations which have volunteer programmes include Youthline, Lifeline, the Art Fair, Aged Care, the Citizens' Advice Bureau and Volunteering Auckland.