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Expanding Opportunity through Active Volunteering

The Department of Labor recognizes that active volunteering can help expand opportunity for unemployed individuals by enabling them to develop and maintain skills, expand their professional networks, and enhance their resumes while helping in their community.

While the economy continues to show signs of improvement, there are still many workers who are facing challenges in connecting to new careers. The Department of Labor has encouraged dislocated workers to pursue education and training to improve their skills and better position them to compete for employment opportunities.  Many workers have taken advantage of these opportunities, but it is also important to lay a path forward for those workers who have not enrolled in training and seek other options to build their skills and increase their chances to find employment.

Today, the Department has issued guidance—in the form of an Unemployment Insurance Program Letter (UIPL)—recognizing that active volunteering can help expand opportunity for unemployed individuals by enabling them to develop and maintain skills, expand their professional networks, and enhance their resumes while helping in their community.  Activities such as coordinating an after-school program, volunteering at a homeless shelter, or assisting individuals in filing Earned Income Tax Credit claims all create immediate benefit for individuals in need and underserved communities.  Such activities also help the participants to sharpen the soft skills that many employers demand.

We also know that, as more businesses stress the importance of corporate citizenship and shared value, many more are encouraging their workers to volunteer.   In many ways, this is not a new development.  A wide range of companies such as AT&T and IBM have long standing programs that encourage employees to volunteer.  As this trend continues to spread, knowing that a job seeker is already committed to the community may be another positive attribute from the employer’s perspective when assessing potential candidates.

Research also indicates that there might be a correlation between civic health and reducing unemployment.  Civic Health and Unemployment, a report issued last year by the National Conference on Citizenship and others found that states and localities with higher indices of civic engagement in 2006 saw less growth in unemployment between 2006 and 2010. While there could be alternative explanations for this correlation, volunteering was a foundational element of the civic engagement in these communities.

Volunteering is not a substitute for paid employment.  The first priority for every displaced worker is to return to gainful employment – actively searching for work is critical and Unemployment Insurance (UI) recipients will still be required continue their job search. However, volunteering may actually expose job seekers to new available jobs. 

Many workers report that they have exhausted their connections even while they continue to send resumes without getting interviews.  Volunteering for a non-profit organization—in addition to actively searching for work—can add a new dimension to job seekers’ resumes by demonstrating commitment and community engagement. 

We encourage States to promote volunteering by individuals receiving unemployment insurance benefits and to review their current “able and available” and “work search” requirements. We also would encourage states to implement policies that allow individuals to volunteer consistent with the requirements of Federal law without making them ineligible for unemployment insurance benefits.  In addition, we are optimistic that this will ignite collaboration between workforce boards and jobs clubs and their counterparts in State volunteer commissions and nonprofit organizations that support volunteering.  Here in Washington, we will work with our colleagues at the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) to share this message with their constituents and partners across the country. 

Active volunteering can expand opportunity, strengthen communities and connect job seekers to their next employer.  As a human capital strategy, volunteering offers a pathway to opportunity that can benefit millions of Americans.

Jonathan Greenblatt is the Director of the Domestic Policy Council Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.