youth workers in nonprofits

Young Workers in Nonprofit Organizations: What we Know

Every year, we COCo tries to make a point of celebrating May 1st – International Workers’ Day- by talking about working conditions in the nonprofit sector. You can see some of those previous blog posts here and here

Last year, Imagine Canada released a document that provided interesting observations about young people working in the nonprofit sector, based on interviews with a dozen young community sector employees in Ontario.  A lot of it echos what we see and hear from young nonprofit staff in Quebec – as well as our own experience, given that the COCo team is mostly under 35! 

Are young workers that different?

We were excited to see descriptions of young workers that don’t fall into the trap of describing ‘millenials’ as a strange, confusing, generation – a trap that many organizations, including nonprofits, are falling into more and more often. This article from the Harvard Business Review does a good job of breaking down that idea. As they put it,

Finally, by attributing challenges with workforce engagement to generational forces that are largely beyond our control, it may provide organizations with a rationale to avoid addressing more difficult workforce engagement issues such as workload, career development, sufficient financial reward, and meaningful work.

Flexibility in Nonprofits Jobs is Great, Instability Not so Much

The paper makes it clear that young workers love the flexibility, dynamism, and learning opportunities offered by the nonprofit sector. They enjoyed being in roles where they had to “wear many hats” and got to use their creativity and problem solving.

The paper made clear, though, the important difference between flexibility and instability. Many of the people interviewed had only had access to short term, contractual work. At best, they had found project coordination positions, where there was no room for upward mobility or involvement in decision making. Many of them were barely making ends meet, had multiple jobs at the same time to make things work, and several talked about health concerns they were struggling to manage with their current pay. 

If you are interested in how rates of employment instability for youth changes over the decades- and how it maps on to other factors, such as having children, education level, and gender- Statistics Canada has the research from about ten years ago. More recently, Canada Without Poverty wrote a great primer on instability in the Canadian workforce, where they write:

Precarious employment is certainly not a new phenomenon, but rates are not improving. The millennial generation has the largest percentage of people with post-secondary education and experience, yet they cannot secure employment. As a generation, they are highly educated, diverse, and adaptable. However, their significant investment of time and money into their futures often results in temporary or unstable work with limited prospects for financial security. The trend towards young people working in unstable jobs demonstrates a larger, structural problem occurring in Canada.

For Young People, Getting a Foot in the Door is Harder and Harder

According to these workers, entry level work is increasingly hard to get. In their view, many entry level positions that would be paid jobs in the private or public sectors are being filled by volunteers in nonprofits. At the same time, the paper explains that:

Not surprisingly, participants reported that it is the norm for young nonprofit job seekers to use volunteering to gain relevant experience, build their skills, and become more attractive as potential hires. However, many reported that while their experiences as volunteers demonstrated that organizations clearly value and depend on them as volunteers, as job seekers they consistently found these volunteer experiences discounted, compared to prior paid experience.

Their interviewees also reported a number of other ways in which it was harder and harder to get in the door, reports that are backed by the Statistics Canada research cited above. Employers were asking for higher and higher levels of education, even when that was not actually a requirement for the role, and expecting that professional certification to be completed before they hired you, rather than offering the ability to take on professional training   while working. They were also demanding ‘direct experience’, rather than transferable skills, more and more.  

Given this competitive environment, some participants felt compelled to pursue postgraduate studies and training, despite believing these advanced degrees would not make them or their competitors any more truly qualified for the work they sought.

Young People Aren’t Choosing to Leave Nonprofits – They’re Being Forced Out

Young nonprofit staff were leaving, or considering leaving the nonprofit sector, because of a steady stream of bad experiences-  a story we here at COCo have heard many times over, for many different kinds of marginalized workers.  

While there is a widespread perception that nonprofits inevitably lose talented staff to better benefits and opportunities offered in the private and public sectors, participants consistently challenged this narrative. Instead of feeling drawn to better opportunities in other sectors, they described their experiences in terms of steadily accumulating challenges that gradually push them out of the nonprofit sector.

Solutions for Young People in the Nonprofit Workforce

Interestingly, one of the things the paper describes is that young people not only felt harmed by the lack of support, financially and otherwise, in their nonprofit workplaces, but also that their nonprofit leaders were not taking that concern very seriously.

…Some felt that nonprofits were not doing their best to advocate for better working conditions for staff. For example, they described instances of senior leaders not communicating with funders to negotiate the creation of better jobs or exploring ways to keep high-performing young employees originally hired through temporary government-sponsored employment programs. Participants believed that nonprofit leaders have an organizational responsibility to work collaboratively and openly with funders to encourage funding practices that support stable working conditions.

At the same time, many of the issues young people felt forced them out of their jobs or the sector are ones that are also in the control and purview of the organization. Indeed, many of the things young people asked for are simply good practice, especially if we want an inclusive and diverse workforce. We strongly suggest taking a look at the recommendations in the document itself, but here is a shortened version of some of the key recommendations made by Imagine Canada:

  1. Address the clarity of volunteer and contract positions.
    1. Provide a job description, and review it regularly.
    2. Offer an orientation and training.
    3. Provide performance management and development.
    4. Be transparent and intentional about how your organization uses volunteers and contractors.
  2. Adopt hiring practices that are inclusive of young people.
    1. Only ask for job requirements that are necessary.
    2. Write clear and comprehensive job postings.
    3. Disclose the salary range on job postings.
    4. Know how volunteers will be considered for employment opportunities within the organization.
    5. Increase paid entry-level opportunities
  3. Recognize and encourage learning and growth
    1. Create clear role expectations and support staff in meeting these expectations.
    2. Formally recognize growth
    3. Foster and develop leadership.
    4. Support career planning.
  4. Improve practices and planning around compensation
    1. Anticipate room for growth.
    2. Be transparent about raises and promotions.
    3. Study and model compensation benchmarks.
    4. Commit to reviewing staff compensation on a biennial basis.
    5. Advocate on behalf of staff for better compensation.

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