Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Founders Thoughts: Voluntary and apprenticeship magic

The trouble with anything purporting to be magical is that magic comes in two forms - good and evil, so whether you are interested in signing up for voluntary or apprentice schemes is best to be aware of what should be the benefits and how to reduce the risk of the pitfalls. That applies to candidates as much as enterprises and organisations. 

Voluntary vehicles

With voluntary positions, the aim is to for the enterprise to gain an extra pair of hands and for the volunteer to gain from having a new experience. Unlike apprenticeships there is no formal training requirement and there are no wages whatsoever, although some expenses (e.g. travel, meals and where applicable accommodation) are sometimes offered. Expenses are not compulsory for enterprises to pay, but it is advisable if you wish to retain good volunteers to secure their continued interest and loyalty.

The whole area of the voluntary sector is riddled with challenges to overcome and grey areas such as how do you run a voluntary organisation when you cannot hold people to a contract when they are volunteering for you? How can you maintain consistency of service and/or product delivery with a high turnover of staff that continually need induction training of some kind and who can say, "I'm sorry I can't (or won't) do that task." The answer is to employ key personnel and pay them a wage, but that is not always possible. The Citizens Advice Bureau for example is a charity that is staffed almost entirely by volunteers from all walks of life.

Volunteers though can become dissatisfied because of the lack for formal training, a structure to their expected duties and opportunities for qualifications which the organisation may simply not have a budget for. However, to gain an insight to new job roles; to hone or gain new skills or confidence or to simply make new friends it can be an invaluable and profoundly rewarding experience.

Local Community Volunteer Services (CVS) can play an important role in helping to match interest from prospective volunteers with the skill needs of the enterprise. However, it remains the responsibility of the organisation to be clear and adhere to what they can offer and be diligent in ensuring that they are organised when it comes to making contact, with volunteers and keeping them them informed.

My own experiences echo this for as a former manager who helped to develop volunteers I recognised the importance of listening to their interests for development so that it became a exercise in negotiation to ensure a happy mix of something for them, and something from them for the company. However, as former volunteer I have had a couple of negative experiences due to expectations that I would go beyond what I had offered for free with no pay, but mainly due to the length of time it takes for some organisations to get back to me as to whether they needed me or not. Not good, fortunately though the majority of organisations offering volunteer work do not behave that way. Most of the time I am happy to report no such problems whenever I have taken on voluntary work.

Who uses volunteers?

Voluntary positions can be on offer from just about any type of industry regardless of it's legal structure these days. If you are an employer please be aware that as much time and effort in terms of pre-planning and monitoring is required to be in place for volunteers as much as any paid member of staff. If you doubt that, ask any social firm. Social firms specialise in offering as many opportunities as they can to disadvantaged people. Do not confuse them with social enterprises who may or may not do the same.

The motivation behind why an individual wants to volunteer is extremely varied and so you'd be wise to tailor duties to those requirements. I personally frown on any organisation that uses volunteers (and/or apprentices) as a cheap source of labour not least because it can all too easily lead to a devaluing of their contributions to the whole operation and to society. Without such people many organisations simply wouldn't be able to exist, function or survive including some rescue services such as mountain rescue, RNLI and Air Ambulance.

Recommendations for Volunteers

If interested in volunteering I recommend you do a bit of research on the organisations you are interested in beforehand. Organisations can range from charities, social enterprises, councils and as well as many private enterprises. If you don't know if an organisation welcomes volunteers, phone up and ask and quiz them about what they can offer as standard to volunteers; what benefits they could offer specifically for the role(s) they want volunteers for and what level of regular commitment is required in terms of your time.

Most organisations have websites for your to contact them direct (ideally by email so that you get things in writing), but many of them these days will only take volunteers via a CVS, the VSO (Voluntary Service Organisation) or similar organisation. The aim of these organisations is to encourage volunteering, but also to ensure that both parties are a match where at all possible and all are only too willing to help.

The sorcery of apprenticeships

In common with volunteers, sadly there are some rather nasty employers who view apprentices as a source of cheap labour whereas the intention is to provide people with formal training via apprenticeship schemes. Originally apprenticeships consisted of being paid a living wage and several years of training. It could be argued that for some professions they have never stopped, e.g. medical, legal and financial professions whereby it can take seven years before one is fully qualified.

Modern apprenticeships differ as they are geared toward training people for a shorter period of time and combining it with qualifications which it is hoped will always be an asset to the individual to help them to secure a living wage. Though apprentices get an income, it is not enough for them to live independently unless supported by other means e.g. benefits. 

Most schemes run in conjunction with colleges or universities so that the theory and some practical experience is covered by the college leaving on-the-job training to the employer. While there are some rules and some forms of assessment regarding the employer's part in training, they are not generally geared to be as measurable as educational establishments, which is how employers who have no intention of offering even a useful work experience can take advantage.

While schemes run by education providers will ensure there is an employer already signed up offering work experience, they can only do so much to ensure that experience is to a high standard. Employers, may or may not have affiliations with a particular college, much depends on the nature of the apprenticeship itself. Qualifications may be deferred to later on in the apprenticeship e.g. after company induction training has been completed. Both training providers should have clearly defined structures, aims and objectives and should adhere to and deliver them.

Assuming that all goes well for the duration of the apprenticeship, by far the biggest pitfall for apprentices themselves is whether or not there is a job offer at the end of it at the going rate with the company they have worked with. Perhaps that should be incorporated as a mandatory requirement for all apprenticeship schemes so that at the end of the training process a secure job of at least one year is offered upon successful completion which could either be part or full time. I believe apprenticeships should be looked upon as in depth and intensive probationary periods for new paid employees, after all is that not original intent behind all such schemes?

True magic

Voluntary and apprenticeship experiences can be wonderfully magical and rewarding for all concerned. Regrettable isn't it, how the few can mar even the best of schemes to ruin the good works and dedication of so many. That's not to say there is dishonour in companies who offer apprenticeships every year and who seldom employ afterwards, but the hope is that some of those apprentices are securing employment from them afterwards. Candidates should be bold and ask what percentage of people secure related paid work upon completion before deciding upon which scheme to sign up for.

In theory if the employer's enterprise is viable it should be progressing and therefore recruiting new staff from their apprenticeship programmes as for them it is a sensible way to ensure that new staff are moulded to their way of working while benefiting from essential training at reduced costs. 
Intelligent employers should be factoring in contingencies for hard times well in advance in their projected forecasts which should always be taking into account trends as well as the overall economy; therefore they should be able to say with confidence that a job would be on offer if the apprentice performs well enough i.e. passes.

Whether you are an employer or a candidate interested in these opportunities, it pays to do your planning and research first. All work relationships that are effective are based on a mutual agreement that not just should, but
will benefit both if handled correctly.

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