The Rise of the Unpaid Workforce


I attended the 2015 Ontario Volunteer Centre Network Conference last November and one of the major topics up for discussion was the Skills-Based Volunteer (SBV). At this conference, SBV’s were described as experienced professionals (in their thirties and forties), foreign educated, new to Canada, and who seek work experience in specialized fields such as accounting, engineering, and even corporate strategic planning. The SBV movement aims to help newcomers gain professional work experience in the same field they were employed or educated prior to immigrating.

Given that the volunteer sector is experiencing such rapid growth and even the Ministry of Citizenship, Immigration and International Trade has recently introduced the Ontario Volunteer Action Plan,4 it’s clear that volunteerism is a well-supported and growing trend in Canada. I’m concerned about what this new volunteer movement (and I would definitely call it a “movement”) will have on paid employees and paid job opportunities in the future? The effects cannot be good, I would imagine. If SBV’s are volunteering their professional skills and willing to work for lower (or no) wages, how would this affect paid employees doing the same work? The consequences for paid employees whose work can be performed by SBV’s can be many, and at this time we don’t know what they are because little research has been done in the area.
While searching for articles on this issue, I only found one 2013 report from Vienna, Austria, which concluded that in many non-profit organizations paid workers are indeed being replaced by volunteers, especially during phases of economic downturn.5 The article did not indicate if, after economic conditions improved, volunteer positions were reduced and paid positions reinstated. Likewise, a 2015 study conducted by the American Counseling Association investigated the effects of internships on three stakeholders: 1) students, 2) employers, and 3) colleges/universities. This study found that internships produced a “win-win” situation for all three parties involved. However, no mention was made of the effects on paid positions. The article does state the major benefit enjoyed by the employer is “a source of inexpensive and qualified labor”6 and this leaves the question of how the work performed by paid employees is affected.

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