Volunteers say free work can lead to paid work

While it isn’t easy to find a job in the IT sector right now, there is one way unemployed IT professionals can keep their skills honed and get an edge in the job market – volunteering for a non-profit organization.

Not only are there ample volunteer opportunities, there is an increasing demand for volunteers who possess high-level IT skills.

“Volunteering to charities is an excellent way to improve your IT skills by helping those with limited technology and funding,” said Ali Syed, a formerly unemployed computer programmer from Hamilton, Ont.

“You have to become very creative in solving problems because there is a finite level of funding (to assist you in solving problems).”

Syed was having no luck trying to re-enter the workforce after a yearlong sabbatical. Averaging only one interview a month, he started volunteering his time to build a visual basic database at a private food bank in Haldimand, Ont.

Finding an IT volunteer position isn’t easy; perusing the available listings isn’t enough. The hidden market in volunteering is large partly because non-profit organizations don’t know how to tap into the high-tech community.

“The non-profit sector lags behind the private sector (in technology) because of funds,” said Barb Boman, manager of volunteer resources at the George Pearson Centre for people with physical disabilities at the Vancouver Hospital and Health Sciences Centre.

There are groups that don’t even have e-mail, and their members only possess rudimentary computer skills. As a result, these non-profit groups don’t know what resources exist as far as software, hardware and people in the IT community that can help them.

Brandur Olafsson, manager of finance and IS for the Fred Victor Centre, a non-profit housing centre in downtown Toronto, suggested that IT professionals who want to volunteer be proactive and find out what an organization’s needs are.

A good example is the Vancouver Aquarium, where two volunteers approached its manager of volunteer services, Karen Howe, to offer their IT skills to build an intranet.

During a volunteer orientation and training session Howe, also president of Administrators of Volunteer Resources BC (AVRBC) mentioned the Aquarium’s desire to develop an intranet.

Specializing in database and Web development, volunteers Isabelle Groc, a research and policy advisor for the City of Vancouver and Ivan Doumenc, a tech support engineer and software developer for SourceMed in Vancouver, contacted Howe to offer their expertise in building the intranet.

Groc and Doumenc didn’t set out to find a volunteer position where they could use their IT skills. In fact their motivation was to help a group that was concerned with conservation and environmental issues.

As a result of their initiative, the aquarium is involving volunteers in IT for the first time. If this project succeeds Howe said the Aquarium would make plans to expand the program. Previously the aquarium took a cautious approach to integrating volunteers in their IT department for security reasons

“People who have come to us with high-level IT skills haven’t been utilized,” Howe said. “The aquarium as well as other organizations are in a transitional period where they’re looking at how skilled volunteers can fit into IT support.”

One concern that affects the non-profit sector as a whole is the retention of volunteers. The Fred Victor centre doesn’t have the funding to hire a volunteer co-ordinator making the recruiting and training of volunteers difficult. Regular staff must train and find work for the volunteers as well as seeing to their normal duties.

“Our resources are limited,” Olafsson explained. “So for us to decide to go with someone, there has to be a clear benefit to us.”

He said the determining factor of whether or not the person volunteering IT skills works out would depend on if there was a project going on that the person could participate in.

He added that if a volunteer wanted to take on a new project the best way would be to inquire about projects the organization has on the backburner.

“Volunteers will really have to take initiative and really own the project,” Olafsson said.

Another concern with involving volunteers in IT is that they will leave a project unfinished or implement something that an organization cannot maintain itself.

Howe said that small organizations, unlike the Vancouver Aquarium, wouldn’t have IT departments. Thus IT-savvy volunteers would be dealing with a fairly rudimentary or non-existent infrastructure because the group wouldn’t have the funding to implement new technology or software.

Howe said she feels fortunate to have access to IT specialists at her own organization. Like most people in her line of work, she doesn’t have high-level IT skills – not enough to accurately assess the viability of Groc and Doumenc’s proposal. Howe had the Aquarium’s IT department examine the proposal before it was approved. It is a luxury that organizations without IT departments don’t have.

IT departments in non-profits can approach their volunteer co-ordinator with a list of IT projects to recruit volunteers for and the conjoining skills. Many organizations without IT personnel don’t recruit volunteers because they don’t know what to look for; they don’t have anyone skilled enough in IT to make accurate assessments of their IT needs.

“(The key) is keeping the goals realistic for the organization they’re involved with,” Olafsson said. The other key is to clearly explain all IT-related material in layperson’s terms to the non-profit group, to show them how they can benefit most from technology.

The good news is, those doing the hiring at IT companies like to see volunteer experience on resumes.

“I think it’s always good experience to work in a non-profit (organization),” said Joanna Hodson, HR manager at Spotwave Wireless in Ottawa. She added that volunteering also involves networking, meeting new people not only for the purposes of self-enrichment, but also for the possibility of finding employment.

Despite the results of a recent study by the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) stating that in 2002, companies are looking to fill 38,000 IT jobs, 9,900 more than the available pool of workers, many unemployed IT professionals are still having difficulty getting back into the game.

Bob Barclay, manager of recruiting and resourcing for xwave in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal agreed with Hodson, that he definitely takes volunteer work into consideration, especially when hiring for an entry-level position.

“All other skills being equal, volunteer experience will give them an extra push,” he said, adding that it makes no difference whether candidates use their IT skills in their volunteer work.

Andy Kroen, executive vice-president of human resources for Sun Microsystems Canada Inc. said he would absolutely consider a candidate’s charity work. “I think it shows some initiative,” said Kroen, who added that he doesn’t see a lot of resumes with IT volunteer experience.

As for Syed, he has just been offered a job as a developer and is back working full-time. Whether or not it was due to his volunteer work, Syed considers volunteering an important part of personal and career development.

“Why not make the cause something you believe in, that way you can treat both the volunteer work and the job search as separate but equal strategies in your career development,” he said.

SIDEBAR

The Ontario Department of Citizenship has recently invested $600,000 to initiate a program called Making IT Work for Volunteers. Partnering with the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), which represents 300 technology firms in Ontario, this program will be a matching service to help the non-profit sector find the people they need in the high-tech community.

The service isn’t up and running yet, but it can be visited at www.VolunteersOnline.ca. An excellent resource is Charity Village, www.charityvillage.com; this Canadian portal posts news, resources, employment and volunteer opportunities catering to the non-profit sector.