How to gain work experience so you don’t have to start at the bottom


Every employer wants experience, however none seem to be willing to give you the opportunity to gain it. Unfortunately, this is something that most young people will run into at one time or another. Getting a job to help pay for tuition, living expenses and other costs can often be an incredibly frustrating negative cycle of resumes and rejections. How is one supposed to get job experience without being able to get a job? We can’t fabricate something from nothing, and good grades and extracurricular involvement simply don’t seem to cut it anymore. One of the most effective solutions to this roadblock is volunteering. A volunteer position is a great way to start off your list of “workplace” or otherwise applicable, employable experience.

Granted, it may be frustrating to start at the bottom, especially if you’re paying thousands of dollars in tuition to train for your career and are trying to maintain a GPA at the same time. However if you have no employable or applicable experience, somebody else will probably get the job and you’ll be back to square one. If that’s the case, a volunteer position will give you an edge that sets you apart from other candidates interested in a job.

Being a volunteer has benefits beyond receiving a high school diploma. Volunteering your time and services is a great way to gain experience in a particular field of interest or pursuit. It also allows you more freedom to choose when and where you want to work, and often the time commitment is more flexible as well. As a volunteer, you gain practical and applicable experience that has more credibility and holds a bit more validity than school-related activities do in the eyes of an employer. In addition, as a volunteer, you are freely offering your time and energy to benefit a community, which looks great on a resumé; it’s more altruistic than having a job simply for the paycheck, and it shows a type of  character that employers want on their team.

Another benefit of volunteering is networking. These connections can often prove useful for future job search endeavours. Even if you don’t work directly with the same people in the future, they are often more than willing to be a reference on a resumé. They can also introduce you to opportunities you may not have otherwise found. Networking opportunities are almost always present at some point or another in any position you may hold, whether it’s paid or not. It is a good idea to take advantage of those opportunities when they present themselves, as you never know when they might come in handy down the road.

A volunteer position is a great way to explore what you may like or don’t like in a work position. It can be difficult to know what you are looking for in a career or how much you will enjoy a particular job. Volunteering is an exploratory option to find answers to some of those questions. It is unfortunate to go all the way through school with a specific career in mind, only to find that you hate the job or a significant aspect of it. Being a volunteer before graduating with a degree can prevent a waste of four years and thousands of dollars on tuition.

But looking deeper, beyond the individual benefit, the most important value of a volunteer position is the benefit to the greater community. Volunteer positions often involve some sort of service to others, which can be fulfilling in and of itself. It’s a way to show you care, and oftentimes the people you serve greatly benefit in one way or another from your service. It’s also something many people do simply for enjoyment. Volunteering in a field of interest is a way to keep up a hobby or interest that you can’t really do outside of a work-type setting. You can make close friendships with those you volunteer alongside as well as those whom you serve, which is another fulfilling and enjoyable aspect of volunteering. Further, the mentality of volunteering being something you want to do rather than something you have to do can shift your attitude and feelings toward it; many people find enjoyment in their volunteer positions in a way they can’t find in their paid jobs due to this very reason. Volunteering is the part of their day they look forward to after working, where they can relax and distress from their day and simply enjoy themselves and what they are doing.

So how should one go about finding a volunteer position? There are several resources available to find a position suited to various interests and skill sets. Google is a good first step: websites such as will often show up in your search, full of opportunities posted by several different individuals and companies. While those lists are a good start, but the options can be overwhelming. To narrow your search, you can specify field of interest or location. Another option is to look up a specific service in your area which is known for being volunteer-run. Examples of these places could be food banks, community shelters, or children’s reading programs. Another option would be to look up specific places in your area where you might want to work. Places such as the Niagara Children’s Center specialize in specific fields of work and volunteer opportunities. If you are keen on getting a position directly related to the field of work you hope to go into, calling or visiting specific centers who employ people from that line of work is one of the best routes to go. Another valuable resource would be to investigate if any institutions you are already affiliated with have a list of volunteer positions or connections with other organizations who may be looking for volunteers. At Brock, Student Life has several resources to help get students connected with different volunteer opportunities, either at Brock or with associated organizations.

After looking through different options and opportunities, there may still be a number of positions to consider. There are several things to think about that can help narrow down the options. Firstly, how much time are you able or willing to commit to volunteering? Some positions have irregular hours, some are a one-time event, while others have a regular schedule. Next, what are your areas of skill and interest? You will probably neither enjoy or excel in a position that you don’t find interesting. Additionally, is it fair to you, the person you are volunteering for, the people you are serving, or others who may have also been interested in that position if it isn’t an area you are competent or skilled in? You shouldn’t just look for any job. Look for one that relates to your field so you know you can handle it. Another question to ask yourself is what your means of transportation are. Are they compatible with the positions you are looking at? Some positions require you to be able to go to different locations. Are you willing to put in some extra application work to have a more specialized position? Many people or organizations will request an application or resumé for their volunteer positions, especially if they require specific skill sets. Going through the process of submitting an application also shows that you are serious about wanting the position. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, what type of position would provide experience which is applicable to future jobs you may apply for? It is great if you can find a volunteer position directly in a field you are hoping to be employed in. However, even if there aren’t any possible volunteer positions in a directly related field, different volunteer positions foster different skills which may be more or less applicable to a field of work you may be interested in.

So, what are some of the typical volunteer positions out there? There are a few common types of opportunities that you will find variations of for several organizations. The first is food handling, preparation, and service. These volunteer opportunities are common at community shelters and food banks. There are often food drives during holiday seasons such as Thanksgiving, Halloween, and Christmas for which several volunteers are needed to go door to door and collect food. Others are needed to help sort the donations or stock shelves of food banks. If you are more interested in preparing or serving meals, community shelters are the place to look. Depending on who you volunteer for and when, these positions can often be regular and recurring, or they could be one-time events.

Another major area of volunteering is working with kids. There are several volunteer opportunities which have to do with kids, whether it be some form or child care, volunteering in a workplace dedicated to children, or volunteering for an organization that has holds educational  activities for kids or just activities for enjoyment. If you are a part of a church or affiliated with an elementary school, these are two of the most common places to find opportunities for volunteering with kids. Keep in mind when applying for these types of positions that most organizations will require you to submit a police check in order to be considered for the position.

Brock has a great opportunity to volunteer with children through the Special Needs Activity Program (SNAP). SNAP is a program that offers movement education to children and youth in the Niagara region with special needs. Brock students volunteer to work one-on-one with the kids, playing games and doing activities that are active but also fun and enjoyable.

“I find the work so fulfilling because you bond with kids over play, and get to see the joy that activity brings to their lives,” said a SNAP volunteer. “Of course there is the benefit of getting volunteer hours, but the true benefit of volunteering for SNAP is working with kids in a hands on, positive atmosphere, and getting to see them let loose and thrive in an encouraging environment.”

The SNAP program has run at Brock since 1994, when it originated as a graduate student’s independent study project. Since then it has grown as a recognized program and has been sustained through the work of staff and hundreds of volunteers.

If you are looking for a volunteer opportunity based more in the sciences than in the humanities, Brock professors often look for interns to help in their labs. Being an intern often opens doors to opportunities for paid positions in the lab later on. As a research intern, students help run the lab and studies that the director of the lab is working on. Having lab research positions is impressive on a resume, and the connections you build with professors can prove useful in the long run. Additionally, having positions in a lab can be a big step towards being accepted for a graduate program.

Dr. Veena Dwivedi is the director of the Brain and Language Lab at Brock. She strongly believes in providing students with opportunities to intern in her lab in order to help them learn and build the basis for a professional career.

“Going to class is one kind of learning, [but] working in a lab, it’s a job,” said Dwivedi. “You are at university to get a professional career … the beauty of university is that you are in a professional environment, so take advantage of [that].”

When looking for an intern position, Dwivedi suggests doing some research to find which lab would best fit your particular interests.

“Identify your career goals … What is your degree good for? Identify the classes or professors that match your interest.” Her other major piece of advice was to get information directly from the source: “You should always try to find people who are doing what you think you want to do, and talk to them. Ask them how they did it.” Finally, to gain an intern position you need to prove that you are willing to put in the work, she says. “If you want something and you aren’t willing to work for it, why should I hire you?” So yes, interning is a lot of work, but it also provides a lot of opportunities and beneficial, professional work experience.

So what now? You’ve found a position, you’ve held it for a while, and you’ve gained some experience and wisdom. How can you progress into the work field using your volunteer position as a launch pad? First, it’s important to reflect on your experience in your volunteer position and determine what you liked and didn’t like, how it might have changed you, and how it may or may not have helped you grow. Experience can be very revealing and help clarify what type of job you really like or are best suited for. It is also important to look into positions that may be made available to you through your volunteer position. If you volunteered in a place that has very specific directives and positions in which you want to work, your volunteer experience within that organization can a big asset to you and increase your chances of landing a paid position with the company or organization.

Even if your volunteer experience is not directly related to the line of work you want to go into, there are things to draw from regarding the position that you held that are of interest to employers. The key is to frame your experience in terms that potential employers understand and deem to be an asset and something they want on their work team. If you’re applying to be a recreational therapist, your employer probably won’t be interested in your ability to cook spaghetti that you learned while volunteering to cook meals in a community shelter. However, they are interested in the communication and interaction skills you practiced as well as the dedication to your position and your responsibility. When writing a resumé, try to deconstruct the elements of your volunteer position and name the individual skills you used and practiced. These skills are often more generalizable to a variety of fields and can prove useful in many different settings and situations. Some of the key things employers look for are things such as leadership, confidence, ability to work independently and collaboratively, responsibility, and communication skills, both written and verbal. These are just a basic list, but they cover a vast variety of potential work positions. The more specific and directly related you can make them to the job you’re applying for, the better.

Volunteering can benefit you in a variety of ways. It’s a great way to gain experience that every employer is looking for, and it can help you discover what you are or aren’t looking for in a future career. There are hundreds of volunteer opportunities available to university students in a plethora of fields. If you want more information on volunteering or practice in applying for volunteer positions, both  Student Life and Community Experience as well as the Student Success Center at Brock are places to check out. The offer plenty of advice and workshops which can help answer any questions you may have.

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