Unskilled vs. Differently Skilled: Maximize Volunteer Differences

By Susan J. Ellis

Over the past several weeks I've heard or read repeated references to volunteers as unskilled workers. And I've reached my tolerance limit.

In almost all cases, when volunteers are referred to as “unskilled,” the speaker or writer actually means “differently skilled” --but only as compared to the credentials of the majority of the paid staff in that organization. We need to advocate for a better understanding of what volunteers bring to the work environment.

To the Department of Labor, “unskilled workers” means something quite specific. These are people with low educational levels, perhaps even illiterate, who have received no training in any vocational skill. They often have an erratic work history and tend to bounce form job to job doing manual or menial labor. They are certainly a group of citizens deserving jobs, but they have little in common with most volunteers.

The overwhelming majority of volunteers are literate, have advanced education, and lots of life--if not occupational--experience. They are not “un”skilled. But their credentials probably do not qualify them to be hired by the agency where they choose to volunteer because their expertise does not fall within the narrow job descriptions of the paid staff there.

Although there are many work situations in which specialized technical knowledge is a non-negotiable requirement such as surgery and teaching Russian literature, most jobs balance some activities requiring specific instruction or experience with some activities needing mainly intelligence, literacy, or other more generic skills. One of the major causes of employee/volunteer tension is confusion between the two sets of tasks.

Because most volunteer programs develop assignments for volunteers in order to “assist staff,” the stage is set for trouble. Being proud of their education and status, most employees cannot imagine sharing their work with someone who offers a different set of skills. Does it not diminish the “professionalism” of a social worker, teacher, nurse, or curator if “just anyone” can do part of the same job?

I am finishing this hot topic as I participate in the Drucker Foundation Conference in Dallas, where 450 executives from business, government and nonprofits have gathered to examine "leadership" in the future. Several of the emerging themes have a direct connection to volunteering and this Hot Topic. Such as:

  • The organizational structures our society has evolved over the centuries don't work any more.
  • Boundaries between "sectors" and disciplines are increasingly arbitrary and becoming blurred.
  • Unchanging "boxes" in which people do specific things in set ways have little meaning in a chaotic time of enormous change.

To me, the implications for volunteerism are clear:

  1. Because volunteers bring skills different from the paid staff to problems already multi-dimensional, they force an "interdisciplinary" approach to finding solutions. While perhaps initially threatening, this can unleash the creativity of all workers in an organization.
  2. Knowledge transfer and technological advances are moving so fast that people trained in "professional skills" years ago may be left in the dust. (That's why we're all recruiting teenagers to teach us about the Internet!)
  3. Until everyone -- paid or unpaid -- recognizes that success can only come from new combinations of approaches and talents, we will spend too much time protecting "turf" and not enough energy on having an effect.

So, my questions to you are:

  • How do we open employees to the value of volunteers purposely recruited to be differently-skilled?
  • How do we facilitate volunteers within systems (including labor unions) resistant to change?
  • How do we move from seeing volunteers as untrained staff assistants to catalysts for new ways of approaching old problems?


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