Just last week, I went to a Toronto Youth Cabinet meeting and joined a working group on youth unemployment. We talked about the volunteering and internship opportunities available in high school and college, and how they will affect youth employment in the future. There was one common issue among these opportunities: their lack of diversity and accessibility. This resonated with me because I realized that these issues affect multiple students from high schools and colleges on all different levels; before this conference, I thought I was the only one with these problems.
Why is volunteering important?
An important point to keep in mind is that volunteering, just like interning, has the potential to prepare young people for their future career. If available opportunities are diverse and suit the interests of different youths, then such opportunities would be able to further develop youth’s skills and interests outside of school, enabling them to gain valuable experiences. But, based on the discussion during the conference, youth don’t feel that such opportunities are plentiful or easy to find. Since experience is crucial to future employment (especially with the competitiveness in the job market for graduates), the potential experience they could gain from suitable volunteer opportunities are important, even critical, factors.
So what’s the problem exactly?
Unfortunately, most of the current openings for prospective volunteers do not adequately address the issue of diverse interests. One of the things that resonated with me the most was our discussion about how volunteer and internship opportunities don’t adequately address the interests and potential of all youth. Right now, many volunteer openings are either helping out at a community centre, hospital or a museum, while internship opportunities would mainly be focused on medicine and business, maybe law. While it’s undeniable that those would suit the interests of some, there are many youth that have different interests than what is currently addressed in the market like helping out in a hospital or a community centre.
One of the reasons why such problems exist, I think, is because a lot people already have an idea of what volunteer work should look like (helping out at community centres, hospitals and museums) but don’t recognize the potential for volunteering to evolve so that it suits the ever-growing interests of students. Another reason is that some fields, like the ones mentioned above, just naturally allow for more volunteer openings, so it’s natural that those fields would dominant the volunteering market.
For example, there would be students who want to go into philosophy or anthropology (fields that are considered atypical), but would have a hard time finding something that interests them while they give back to the community. Most likely, they would be deprived of the opportunity to develop their skills through volunteering. Hence, an imbalance in opportunity has emerged.
Image Source: The Olive Branch
It seems like students who have less typical interests are less likely to find something that would help them gain experience in their field of interest. As a result, they have a disadvantage when trying to find employment. After realizing that such issues were happening on a larger scale than I had initially thought, I started to recall my own past experiences of having difficulty finding different opportunities.
I remember looking for summer programs and most of what I found on the internet was about business, medicine and law. There were dozens of pages and links surrounding these fields. But when I tried to look for programs on publishing and sociology, there were a lot fewer options to choose from. Even when I went to volunteer expos, there were dozens of booths of volunteer opportunities related marketing, art, medicine and social work. I only saw a few booths about social issues and writing—things that are interesting to me.
Granted, atypical opportunities do exist out there, and they are able to cater to students with different interests and skills. Such organizations may include INKspire, the Toronto Youth Cabinet, etc, etc. However, when the market is already so saturated by volunteer opportunities, such specific and distinct ones are made less accessible.
This leads to our next problem: the accessibility of the existing opportunities. Let me to reiterate that diverse and atypical opportunities do, in fact, exist. However, they are often overshadowed by typical and mainstream ones. This makes it hard for potential volunteers to learn about them. In the meeting, many participants expressed that they didn’t know how to get their hands on relevant information concerning atypical volunteering opportunities, especially when it is so vast and scattered. This is an important issue because the existing opportunities out there wouldn’t matter if people don’t know about them.
Then how should we fix this problem?
We need to make all available opportunities as accessible as possible in order to help youth with all different types of interests gain as much as the community has to offer. This can be done by replicating and promoting some of the existing platforms like SPARK Ontario, volunteer centres, etc. that help students search for opportunities so they can fully utilize such resources to find suitable opportunities.
If we strive to diversify and increase the accessibility of opportunities, so many more youth would be able to gain the knowledge, connections and experience from programs, volunteer opportunities and internships. In turn, the things they gain would become invaluable in helping them prepare for future employment and a successful career.