Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Your community and your CV: building both by voluntary work.

I am making appeals in every possible media that young people or people returning to work should consider community work as a way of demonstrating their capabilities to potential employers

It’s a common chicken and egg problem.  Even though you’ve graduated college with good qualifications and have got energy and enthusiasm for any challenge an employer might give you, you can’t get a job without experience and you can’t get experience without a job.

It’s the same for people recovering from a long-term illness or say, women returning to work after raising a family. In these difficult times, having been a successful parent or diligent jobseeker isn’t enough to impress employers with your CV. If you’re in that situation and want to break that log-jam, please hear me out on how to do something about it and if you know anyone living in or near Worlingham or Beccles in Suffolk, you might want to pass the news of an exciting development in their community.
The community of Worlingham has recently completed a lengthy consultation to produce a ‘Parish Plan’ in which they were guided and supported by Suffolk ACRE.

These exercises help determine a community’s priorities for the next ten years or so. The Government has stated that Parish Plans should be used to “identify key facilities and services, set out the problems that need to be tackled and demonstrate how distinctive character and features should be preserved”.

This plan has identified that this community needs and wants a good neighbour scheme. There are more than twenty of these schemes in Suffolk which are supported by Suffolk ACRE and many hundreds of these schemes are operating throughout the country. The BBC ‘One Show’ made a good short film about them which you can find on YouTube.

On March 2nd  2010 at Worlingham Middle School, I and my colleague Robert Horn from Suffolk ACRE made a presentation about good neighbour schemes hosted by parish councillor Michael Culyer. Afterwards, sixteen people stepped forward prepared to be volunteers in the scheme, which is an impressive start. Four people said they would be on the committee “if they had to”. But I was struck at the meeting that this scheme could, and should, also be an opportunity for young people locally who might be in the job market, to gain some very useful skills. I asked everyone to spread the word. If a committee of six could be recruited and if the committee had at least one person between 18 and 25 or so, that would be fantastic.

What are these schemes?

A good neighbour scheme is a way that communities can work together to provide mutual support in everyday tasks when someone finds that essential task difficult. It often supports elderly or disabled residents but they are open to all. The benefits these schemes create are many; bringing people in contact with each other strengthens community bonds. It enables people to be productive by giving to charity a little bit of their time instead of just their money, doing whatever they are best able to do.

Helping people who have an occasional immediate need (don’t we all sometimes?) can help older people live in their homes longer (so their simple practical needs don’t burden on the NHS or Social Services and your council tax), younger children may not miss school so often, working people might not have to take days off to attend to one of their dependents and so on. By building networks of mutual support, both trust and responsibility towards each other are nurtured in a community.

If you’re sceptical of these ideals, just listen to how older people long for the good old days when everyone knew their neighbours and people helped each other when they needed it, unlike today, they add ruefully. It worked then and it can still work today.

How a scheme basically works is that a telephone number for a mobile phone is advertised in the community and a rota of volunteers takes turns to ‘hold’ the phone. When somebody needs assistance with a task, they call the phone and that day’s holder logs the call and checks a directory of other available volunteers (who have some training and a CRB check done). They match the volunteer to the task and despatch them. When the task is done, the volunteer calls in and the job is logged as completed.

What tasks the scheme does and doesn’t do depends on the needs of the community. No two schemes are alike in terms of the needs they fulfil but all work on the system of a ‘time bank’, a ‘skill directory’ and common phone number to ensure access for all.
Many schemes offer transport with volunteers driving their cars to take people to doctor’s appointments - for which there is normally a small charge to cover petrol - but these schemes can help all kinds of people with all kinds of tasks. A young man who broke his leg once asked a scheme to walk his dog for him.

Generally, a rule of thumb is that help is offered with basic everyday tasks when there is an urgent need for them to be done.  An elderly person might have difficulty changing a light bulb or a battery in their smoke detector which if left undone would put them in danger. Somebody might need help filling in a form or assembling some flat-pack furniture or just a hand at the other end of the wardrobe while preparing a room for a new baby.

People unfamiliar with these schemes wonder how it can actually work?  How do you filter out lazy people or those wanting something done for nothing? Don’t the volunteers burn out quickly with all the jobs that need doing? In practise this rarely happens and by learning from the experience of the many existing schemes, ways of successfully managing these issues if they arise are found. These techniques are straightforward but require the use of judgement and management skills, which most of us possess, while Suffolk ACRE can provide additional support if it is needed.

Their opportunities

That these challenges exist is my point though; the running of a good neighbour scheme is an excellent way for someone to get management experience - in exactly the sort of challenges you would face in business - that can be demonstrated and quantified on a CV.

You would only need to invest a few hours a month to a good neighbour scheme to prove to potential employers that you possess initiative, good judgement, people skills and trustworthiness and that you can handle responsibility.

I believe anyone looking to prove themselves a capable of a well paying job should consider the useful experience they can gain from sitting on a community committee, be it their village hall, their pre-school or their good neighbour scheme.

There’s no need to take a gap-year in an exotic country while there is plenty of really useful community work to be done at home. I wonder why more young people don’t seize their local opportunities to get involved? It may be that they don’t hear about them. Young people and older people, such as the newly-retired who look for such opportunites, move in different orbits. I asked the twenty five apparently mostly middle-aged people who came to the meeting if anyone had a Facebook or Twitter account and none had.

On many community organisations, such as the village hall or a parish council, you will find their committees already have on them highly qualified people who might want to put a lifetime’s experience to good use in their community.

While this is a good thing, often there is some deference to them. People, especially those without experience or many qualifications, might feel it’s not their place. However, such people are often influential locally, which if you’re looking for a job, they can be useful contacts. And it’s not really a conspiracy that every parish organisation has the ‘usual suspects’ but a symptom of that those who are prepared to give their time to the community tend to be in short supply.

In some communities though, there not enough retired business people willing to give their time, but there is just as much, if not more, need for things to be done. Addressing that imbalance is part of the remit of Suffolk ACRE.

So in the way the good neighbour schemes operate, the tasks and roles of the committee are often structured so that you don’t need highly qualified people to run them. It would be great if you were one but there is always room for people to grow within these schemes. The schemes start with doing only what it is capable of and then grows its capacity, if it wishes to, to do more. And as far as good neighbour schemes in Suffolk go, these opportunities are plentiful and all its volunteers can be supported by the resources of Suffolk ACRE.

My own story

Can doing community work really make a difference to your CV? I say it does with the benefit of personal experience. 

In 1999 I came to live in Suffolk after working abroad for eighteen years as a film technician where I started working in London as a news photographer, often going overseas on assignments and only coming home in-between. Then in 2003 I was made redundant. In a sense that blow to my long held ambition was a relief as by then my children needed me to be at home like a normal father but I struggled to find local employment, and so I scratched a living going hand to mouth doing anything I could find. 

You see I was basically unemployable in a traditional context as twenty five years previously I had left school without any O-levels. In the world of film-making and photo-journalism, that meant nothing as examples of my work were in your multiplex and my last news splash was my CV but in the real world, where freelance photo-journalism doesn’t pay a mortgage, I found that employers looking at my CV saw someone without any qualifications and didn’t understand how my wide experience could be relevant to their business. 

Despite creating every kind of movie magic and talking my way in to interview and photograph countless famous people for newspapers, however dependable I was, my career choices were characteristic of a sole-trader without management responsibilities. People said they just didn’t know what to make of me.

In the meantime my young children were going to pre-school and I was begged to be on its committee. After a while we became frustrated with all the problems it had with substandard premises and we thought the best solution would be to raise the money for a new building. Over the next two years, the fundraising chairman and I, as the treasurer, had to overcome many challenges to raise £147,000 to build and equip a new school and open it on time but we did it.

It took many, many, nights of poring over budgets and leases and building contracts as well as persuading recalcitrant contractors, inspectors and funders to deliver what we wanted from them. In the meantime, I went back to college part-time and in 2009 I got an MA in combined business and arts management.

Although those qualifications might have opened more doors than before, when I graduated I now had to compete with thousands of other graduates also looking for jobs. I noticed though, that in every job interview I’ve had since then, I was always asked about my role in the pre-school; how many people I had supervised and how much money I had managed.  It gave me enormous satisfaction that I could show I had responsibility for all financial, personnel and employment matters for five staff for three years and had successfully project-managed something within their terms of reference.

The interesting thing is my colleague on the pre-school project says exactly the same thing. During the project she was an at-home mum with young children and when they went to middle-school and she went job hunting she found “they always ask me about running the pre-school”.

I don’t think running a good neighbour scheme would be as challenging as that building project was and I wish I had had someone like Suffolk ACRE who I now work for to support us. When I am supporting good neighbour schemes in Suffolk Coastal and Waveney districts, I constantly refer to this experience - especially when someone thinks there is an insolvable crisis - as proof that people with a common purpose in a community can pull together and that it sometimes takes lateral thinking and a bit of initiative to get what you want out of life.

So, if you want to get involved in helping in your community by participating in a good neighbour scheme as a volunteer in any capacity, or you think your community needs a good neighbour scheme, please get in touch and I can tell you more. You could be benefitting yourself as well as someone else by creating a better community for yourself, which would be the most satisfactory outcome for all concerned.

Nat Bocking
Community Development Researcher
Suffolk ACRE
Reception           01473 345300
Mobile                07787 258137