Study: Does National Service Experience Improve a Young Person's Job Prospects?
Young people should have multiple pathways for success and achievement in civic and professional life. National service can be one of those pathways for youth to acquire skills and experience while giving back to their communities and working on social issues they care about. Service can also have a positive effect on social, academic, and economic outcomes, particularly for young people. Some employers and hiring managers report that they value those experiences and consider it relevant when considering employment decisions. However, there had been limited research on if and how young people’s service-related experience translates to job opportunities; specifically, on whether employers and hiring managers do take into consideration service experience in employment decisions.
As part of CIRCLE’s commitment to understanding and promoting the myriad ways that civic and political engagement can support young people’s development and economic mobility— particularly for youth from marginalized and underserved backgrounds—we set out to fill that knowledge gap. In 2015, we received a grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) to conduct a real-world research experiment that would study the effect of AmeriCorps service experience in the labor market. AmeriCorps is a network of local, state, and national service programs that connects over 70,000 Americans each year to intensive service experiences that meet community needs. As one of the largest service programs in the United States, it was a natural choice for our study.
At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has economically battered youth and when many are casting about for solutions to the country’s fraying civic fabric, we’re pleased to share the results of our research so it may inform ongoing efforts to strengthen national service and to better connect it to young people’s professional lives and socioeconomic wellbeing.
The Studies: National Service and Job Prospects
To explore the relationship between national service and employment opportunities, we conducted a randomized field experiment by applying to 2,010 real jobs during the summers of 2016 and 2017. We tested whether including AmeriCorps service experience on fictitious applicants’ resumes and cover letters increased the likelihood of receiving a callback from a potential employer. We created 16 different types of resumes and cover letters with fictitious applicants who had varied service experiences, controlling for race, gender, educational level, resume quality, sector (non-profit or for-profit), occupation (administrative or sales), and metro area (Chicago or Boston).
We also conducted a parallel supplemental study to explore the perceptions of hiring managers and employers regarding AmeriCorps service experience. Specifically, we examined the Employers of National Service (ENS) network of more than 500 companies and organizations across the country that have a connection to CNCS and have made a commitment to recognize and recruit national service alumni. The supplemental study included three components: a survey of hiring managers and in-depth interviews with employers (including those within the ENS), and a smaller resume experiment with 69 open positions at ENS organizations to test the callback rate from employers in that network.
Overall, in our primary field experiment study, there was not a significant difference in the rate of callbacks between resumes that included national service experience and those that did not. (We defined callbacks as either an interview request, an employer showing “high interest,” or an employer showing “low interest,” but 80% of callbacks were interview requests.) Of the 2,010 applications submitted, 409 (or 20%) received callbacks, evenly split between resumes with and without service experience. Eight percent received a rejection, and 72% got no response.
Regardless of all other factors (race/ethnicity, gender, resume quality, job type, and metro area), we found that a college degree was the major predictor of receiving a callback for a job application. In fact, there was a significant difference in the callback rate for resumes with a bachelor’s degree and those with only a high school degree. In order to account for this dynamic, we split the sample based on education and, still controlling for other factors on a candidate's resume, we found that the odds of getting a callback among resumes with the same level of education was slightly higher for resumes with national service experience listed. Meaning: an applicant with a bachelor's degree and AmeriCorps experience had a slightly higher chance of getting a callback from a potential employer compared to an applicant with a bachelor's degree and no service experience. The same was true for resumes with just a high school degree plus AmeriCorps experience, compared to those with a high school degree and no AmeriCorps service listed.
Our supplemental study of ENS organizations shed some additional light on these findings and suggested room for improvement. By exploring the perceptions of hiring managers and employers, we found that if they know and understand AmeriCorps they’re likely to take it into account in hiring decisions. However, many hiring managers lack in-depth understanding of the program and how it builds career and leadership skills that are invaluable in any job position.
Top takeaways from that supplemental study of hiring managers—and particularly, ENS hiring managers—include:
- ENS employers are more knowledgeable about specific benefits that AmeriCorps volunteers may gain from a year of service than non-ENS employers.
- Among ENS managers, AmeriCorps alumni resumes were about twice as likely to advance to an interview (17%) as non-AmeriCorps resumes (7%).
- ENS employers value volunteering experience as a skill-building experience and encourage volunteering as part of professional development.
- When hiring managers have direct experience with AmeriCorps from hosting past volunteers or having served as AmeriCorps volunteers themselves, their valuation of AmeriCorps volunteers rises significantly.
- As the table below shows, employers who have hosted AmeriCorps volunteers are much more likely to believe AmeriCorps is well-suited to developing a host of skills and assets that are valuable in professional settings.
The major takeaway from both our studies is that service experience can matter in the job market, but a college degree matters most. That said, based on our supplemental study of employers, young people without a college degree can potentially leverage their service experience, but only if they highlight how the experience provided them with skills transferable to the professional setting for which they’re applying.
Most employers consider a college degree proof of the qualities and competencies of a prospective job candidate. It is not enough for young people who did national service to describe their role, experience, and impact; they must explicitly highlight the skills and leadership ability acquired in a way that is meaningful to employers and conveys the competencies managers may be seeking. We should note that, consistent with research from Georgetown University that the majority of jobs would require some college experience by 2020, it was very difficult for us to find jobs to apply to that did not require a college degree, so our understanding of this dynamic is somewhat colored by that limitation.
At the same time, our supplemental study of ENS organizations shows that it’s a two way street: applicants must communicate the value of their service experience better, but employers need to develop a stronger understanding of AmeriCorps and the skills that participants acquire through the experience. Our research suggests there’s a lot of work to be done in that respect, but when managers have a deeper familiarity of AmeriCorps they understand and value skills like leadership, communication, and responsibility and are more apt to consider them similar to what a candidate may have acquired through a similar, entry-level job.
Therefore, awareness-building among employers that emphasizes skills and competencies rather than degrees or certifications is a key step that may help young people with a history of service get on a path of economic mobility.