Rob Jackson: Job substitution - time for a new approach

If paid roles are being purposefully displaced so volunteers can do the work instead, concerns should be raised, argues our columnist

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson

Last month, Sir Stuart Etherington, issued a new year letter to the sector in which he called for fresh thinking about the role volunteering can play in tackling society’s challenges. One of the issues Sir Stuart highlighted was the need for the debate about volunteers and job substitution to move on.

Job substitution is a thorny, complex and emotive issue that provokes strong views. The term "job substitution" itself makes things worse, implying that one volunteer can substitute for one employee, something that is impractical and unrealistic.

Far better are the terms job displacement and job replacement. The distinctions between displacement and replacement might seem subtle, but they are important:

  • Displacement is when paid roles are purposefully removed with the intention that volunteers can be brought in to do the work instead.

  • Replacement is when work previously done by paid roles is reallocated to volunteers. For example, an organisation is forced to cut paid roles because of funding changes, so it recruits volunteers to deliver the service in a different way for the continued benefit of its clients.

If paid roles are being purposefully displaced so volunteers can do the work instead, concerns should be raised. As well as the issue of removing people’s livelihoods, two major errors of judgement about volunteering are probably being made: volunteers are a free or cost-saving option; it is easy to recruit people who will volunteer to take on those paid roles and do it for no reimbursement.

Volunteer motives vary, but depriving paid workers of an income is not one of them

Noble, Rogers and Fryar

Sometimes, though, volunteers can be a better way to do things than paid staff. That’s why I hate the phrase "volunteers should complement and supplement the work of paid staff". It fails to recognise the distinctive value that volunteering can bring. It dismisses anything unique and precious about volunteering and subordinates it to a low-status activity next to paid work.

I've worked in programmes where volunteers had a credibility in the eyes of clients that paid staff could never have. That credibility came from the client seeing the volunteer as someone who wanted to spend time with them, not someone they believed was there just because they were paid. In that scenario, volunteers didn’t supplement, complement or replace paid staff; they brought something that paid staff could not.

None of this is easy. If it were we would have resolved these issues long ago. Sir Stuart is right to challenge us to "be bold for volunteering". A more informed and open debate about the roles of volunteers and paid staff in voluntary sector organisations is timely. The world around us is changing fast and the way we’ve always done things might not cut it any more.

As Albert Einstein said" "The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them."

Rob Jackson is a volunteering consultant

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