Capitalising on the Growing Army of Volunteers in the West Midlands During COVID-19

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In this Blog, George Bramley discusses how volunteering can help people find, or get back into, long term employment.

Volunteering as a response to COVID-19

There has been significant media coverage on the number of NHS Volunteer respondents recruited in response to COVID-19 before recruitment was suspended at 750,000 volunteers nationally so that applications could be processed. West Midlands Police are supporting potential volunteers who would like to help in the response to COVID 19 by providing an email address they can send their details and be matched with opportunities. Birmingham City Council with Birmingham Voluntary Service Council (BVSC) have formed the C19 Support Brum partnership, which is working within existing local neighbourhood structures and with voluntary groups and local elected members across the city to provide access to support, advice, and practical help.

While we currently do not have any robust numbers at the time of writing on the number of individuals who have volunteered, previous research has shown the West Midlands has a culture of volunteering having been reported as having the highest level of formal volunteering in the country in the Helping Out survey commissioned by the Cabinet Office in 2007. The regions voluntary organisations are undercapitalised compared to those based in London: while the region has nine per cent of voluntary organisations in the country they only hold three per cent of assets held by the sector (UK Civil Society Almanac 2019).

The potential impact of volunteering on future employment prospects

It is generally accepted that volunteering can support employability and help individuals to find work. City-REDI / WM REDI has been working with the National Centre for Rural Health and Care to explore the role of volunteering as a potential route to recruiting individuals to work in the health care sector in response to labour shortages. Therefore, it can be hypothesised that increased interest in and participation in volunteering in response to COVID-19 may help some individuals to enter or return to employment.

Does the research support this hypothesis? There have been studies commissioned to support policy development on the role of volunteering in supporting employability. Two of particular interest and now quite old but still provide important insights into how policy might be framed.

Andy Hirst’s report on whether voluntary activity can improve an individual’s ability to gain, maintain or improve their employment for the Department of Education and Skills based on a survey of 1,708 respondents found:

  • 70 per cent of those who had specifically volunteered to improve their employment prospects reported it had done so compared to 40 per cent of those who had done so for charitable reasons.
  • The provision of training as part of the volunteering activity is associated with improved employment outcomes as was the opportunity to review and discuss their contribution.
  • Public-facing activities improved employability.
  • Hearing about work opportunities through networks provided by volunteering helped employability.

Angela Paine and colleagues based in the University of Birmingham’s Third Sector Research Centre have analysed the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) data on volunteering. Their study found that controlling for education, volunteering has a statistically significant weak effect on entry to employment and they concluded that:

The frequency of volunteering, however, makes a difference to its effects on employment outcomes. The effects also vary according to demographics. The evidence on job retention is weaker, and volunteering appears to have zero or even negative effects on wage progression. While the BHPS has limitations for this kind of analysis, we suggest that too much has been made of the link between volunteering and employability, and indeed that intention is infrequent among volunteers. 

Volunteering as a means of meeting skills needs in health service and improving employability

There are essentially three main groups of volunteers, ignoring volunteering schemes aimed at young people such as NHS Cadets.

The first group is NHS Volunteer respondents who are expected to deliver non-clinical simple but vital tasks including acting as drivers, delivering food and prescriptions to individuals who are self-isolating and making phone calls to check on elderly and others in high-risk categories. These can all be considered public-facing activities that have been associated with improving the employability of individuals seeking work. Those attracted are likely to be individuals who are not motivated by or not aware of how such activities can be presented to employers as providing transferable work skills. For those who want to move into employment following volunteering, it is important that employment coaches/ advisors working with them identify from their NHS Volunteer experience specific examples that demonstrate skills potential employers are seeking.

The second group is clinicians considering a return to the NHS. This is relatively straightforward for those that have maintained their registration to practice with their relevant professional body. For those for whom registration has lapsed, the government is having to explore with colleges relaxing their regulations for individuals who wish to take on a similar role to that they had previously. However, those whose registration has lapsed are well placed to provide coordination and management roles, freeing up other clinicians including potentially the management and support of non-clinical volunteers.

The third group, which is potential of greatest interest, comprises existing NHS volunteers and volunteers in allied volunteer organisations working in the health and care sector who could in theory transfer across to the NHS if needed. There is currently little movement between organisations by volunteers working with vulnerable people because each organisation has to undertake their own Disclosure and Barring Service checks even though there have been developments such as the volunteer learning passport in Lancashire to enable movement between the public sector and voluntary organisations. In response to COVID-19, NHS England has issued new guidance around the recruitment and management of volunteers. This guidance is aimed at NHS staff responsible for managing volunteers and covers managing risks and redeploying staff in new roles which reduce their potential exposure to COVID-19. It also covers how to respond to new requests and on-boarding of new volunteers – here our research has found that it takes up to six months with necessary security checks, inductions and training and finding the right placement. The guidance recommends that NHS employers take a more holistic approach to assess risks, including acceptance of checks undertaken by voluntary sector organisations such as St Johns Ambulance Brigade. There are two recommendation is of particular relevance in terms of entry into work and employability. The first that is NHS employers consider offering existing volunteers who are familiar with the NHS temporary paid positions being created in response to COVID-19. The second is that managers make sure that volunteers are aware they can use the NHS e-learning platform to develop their skills contributing to future employability.

Potential policy implications

While there are commonly held belief and evidence that volunteering can improve employability and entry into work, any response post COVID-19 to assisting people into work will need to be nuanced in its approach. It will need to take into account:

  • People are motivated to volunteer for different reasons which both directly and indirectly affect employability and entry into employment.
  • While those motivated by improving their employability are more likely to enter into employment they may still need support to do so from employment coaches/advisors. Some will rapidly progress into employment with little assistance whilst others will need help in identifying and describing the skills and experience they have developed to potential employers
  • NHS volunteer responders are required to undertake public-facing roles that increase the likelihood of improved employment outcomes as a result of volunteering.
  • The support individuals received whilst volunteering. Those that have received training and feedback on their contributions tend to have better employment outcomes. The commitment of the NHS and voluntary sector organisations to provide access to their online training resources is helpful.
  • While the research has previously shown that those choose to volunteer for more altruistic reasons are less likely to enter employment this does not take account of recent changes in recruitment practices by employers. The health and care sector places greater importance on values in recruiting staff and students on training programmes, volunteers will be in a better position to demonstrate these values.

In the context of continuing labour shortages in health and care there is scope to capitalise on volunteers exposure to these services and also to highlight the importance of these sectors – for both employment, careers and for local well-being.

City-REDI / WM REDI have developed a resource page with all of our analysis of the impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) on the West Midlands and the UK. It includes previous editions of the West Midlands Weekly Economic Monitor, blogs and research on the economic and social impact of COVID-19. You can view that here.

This blog was written by George Bramley, Senior Analyst, City-REDI / WM REDI

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI / WM REDI or the University of Birmingham.

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