This week I recognized that I have reached the stage of my life and career where I am consistently pressured to engage in the sometimes odious task of strategic “CV building.” This small insight into my personal situation led me to think about volunteer work, in particular, becomes its own little economy, where some forms of volunteer work have more “value” than others: they carry more status and prestige, they are more difficult to get into, and they can, potentially, carry plenty of political power that is not (as I will later argue) obtained democratically.
So here’s the story. This week I attended the Government of Canada Career Fair at the University of Alberta, and was subsequently poking around their career site . They’ve got some recruitment program for newly minted post-grads. There is one for new grads in general but also a more muckity-muck Recruitment of Policy Leaders program. There are requirements that you have received some sort of giant scholarship1, that you have policy-relevant work experience, and also that you have volunteer/extra-curricular experience. So let’s take a look at that criteria:
- Voluntary service to, or leadership in, their community (e.g., student government, contributions in the voluntary or not-for-profit sector); OR
- Personal accomplishment or initiative (e.g. high-level sporting or cultural achievement, founding a business or other organization); OR
- Receipt of community recognition through awards, prizes, or other public acknowledgement for non-academic, non-professional achievement or contribution.
The message here is that not just any volunteer/extra-curricular stuff will do: It must be “high level.” “Student government” positions turn them on. They like formal “community recognition” of your activities. So if you want to get higher up on the career ladder (or food chain?) you’d best start seeking out the volunteer stuff that looks great on your resume or CV.
Here was what made me think. Next week I’m meeting with someone to talk about doing something I’ve always wanted to do: work with low-literacy adults. Following through on this I will work with a noble and underfunded organization once a week, trying to pass on a little love of learning to low-income, sometimes homeless adults. And it occurred to me that if I was “thinking strategically” about my volunteer time, this wouldn’t be my best bet. It’s not particularly high profile. It doesn’t carry any political power or weight, as a governance board might. I’m probably not going build any “networks” out of it.2 Perhaps I’d be better off, if I want to be a Policy Leader, going for board positions or leading projects for widely recognized non-profits? There’s always the United Way!
Assuming I am not atypical in recognizing that some forms of volunteer work “count” more than others, what is the broader impact of strategic CV building? I think you could make a case that it eventually “sorts” people with education and political experience out of and away from the kinds of roles in which they would be working directly with, and advocating on behalf of, people who lack social, political, or economic power. On balance, we shape a system here where an educated elite is incentivized to pursue “higher status” volunteer work, and leave the real “people work” to others. Arguably, this just reinforces social distance between the “haves” and the “have nots.” No?
I do not mean to be excessively cynical. Volunteer work, regardless of its status is, I believe, most often undertaken in a genuine spirit of helpfulness and giving. But it is also a “currency” in the job market, which just sort of taints the whole thing. It’s not any one person or activity that offends me. I’m just interested in how the whole “status thing” affects the choices we make, and the values behind those choices. The purist in me would like to see all of our volunteer work done for its own sake. Yet there are forces that compromise this with instrumental or strategic considerations.
I mentioned above that this eventually also has significant political consequences. If you’ll bear with me and check back on my next post, I’ll be examining the criteria for a public member of the University of Alberta Board of Governors.3 As we’ll see, not just any member of the public will do…
1A Government of Canada post-graduate scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) or Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), or a Trudeau Scholarship will all do nicely, thank you… These scholarships are “big tickets” if you are graduate student. They provide substantial funding, and are widely recognized.
2 Sociologists Pierre Bourdieu, and more recently Robert Putnam refer to these “soft currencies” as forms of social capital. Putnam uses the term more in the sense that our connections with others improves social and political engagement. Bourdieu uses the term more critically; he’s interested in how social capital functions, along with education and economic capital, to perpetuate social inequality. It’s cool stuff; very interesting. More on this later, perhaps.
3A sneak preview you ask? Here’s the University of Alberta BoG recruitment ad.