How I Got My First Job by Volunteering

An original Signal Radio Music Mug, circa 1983, advertised as being a lot more use than a chocolate tea pot

The current debate, exemplified by this article, about whether people on Job Seekers' Allowance should or shouldn't work for free at various companies reminds me of how I got my first job in my chosen career — by volunteering.

In 1983 I was working behind the bar in a pub in Chester and didn't have a lot to show for myself to be honest. I was going nowhere but I knew that what I really wanted to do, what I'd long wanted to do, was to work in radio. Well, no one was going to pay me to do that but one person, Tony Hawkins, was prepared to "allow me to work as a volunteer" at his new radio station in Stoke on Trent, Signal Radio.

That was my break, and I owe Tony thanks for a lot of what followed.

After a few months of commuting I moved to Stoke and "hung around the station" most days, doing things like operating the studio during outside broadcasts, helping in the newsroom, writing and voicing my first ads and, the age old volunteer job in radio, recycling tape. (Question, what do young volunteers do now I wonder, recycle hard drives?) The original jingle package1 evokes a lot of happy memories — especially the full station theme played by the Hallé Orchestra.

Anyway, I digress, the pub where I was working in Stoke (Newcastle under Lyme actually) closed down and I was out of work so I signed on but continued to volunteer at Signal Radio. Then I made a big mistake — I told social security what I was doing all day. Oh boy…

They took away my benefit because, in their eyes, I wasn't actively looking for work. In my eyes of course, that's exactly what I was doing. By being on site, by learning my trade, by getting to know people, I was making myself employable. It was only through that work that I did indeed get my first paid job in radio*. You bet I was looking for work!

For only the first year or so of its existence, Signal Radio's FM frequency was 104.3 which was exceptional at the time, so much so we genuinely worried whether people's radio dials went up that far.

But, social services didn't see it that way. They said "would you volunteer at a chip shop in the hope of getting work there?" I said no because you don't need a lot of skill to work in a chip shop. I'm trying to break into a very competitive industry, I need to do this. It all got a bit nasty and I ended up going through the appeals process and lost but how times change. What I was doing then illegally was exactly the kind of thing the current government is encouraging. I loathe the Tories with a passion but my answer today would be that yes, I would volunteer to work in a chip shop if that's what was available and if I thought there was a reasonable prospect of getting some work at the end of it.

Today, people are saying that working for free at Burger King, or Waterstone's or Matalan or wherever is slave labour. It's not. It's making yourself employable. It's proving that you can do a job and making yourself useful so that someone will choose you rather than the next person when a paid position is available.

Now, there are a lot of unscrupulous people that will take advantage of anyone, so, OK, be a little choosy and don't give up your time for just anyone — that way you may well be exploited. If there is a job that someone should be being paid to do then only a fool would do it for free. But don't assume that all work experience or volunteer opportunities are like that. Talk to anyone about how they got their foot in the door of a job they actually enjoy and I bet you'll hear a tale that begins with some variation of my story.

If you're unemployed — and these days that can be anyone, anytime — and if the chance comes along to volunteer, you have a choice: make yourself useful and get the job when it comes up or sit on the sidelines moaning about slave labour.

Rant over.

* That's one of those stories where being in the right place at the right time and knowing the right people helped. The Managing Director at Signal was one Donald Brooks who had been MD at Radio Orwell in Ipswich when it opened and had employed a young salesman, Nigel Reeve. In 1985 Nigel was head of sales at County Sound in Guildford and was looking for a trainee commercial producer and, well… I got the job thanks in no small part to Donald giving Nigel a push. Those Radio Orwell connections helped when I wanted to move later in 1985 too and are the reasons behind my move to Ipswich all those years ago.

Some years later I, like a lot of people, took part in volunteer work parties with the Suffolk Wildlife Trust. When a job came up there, I got that one too.