There’s more to community service than you think.

Employees facing an increasingly competitive job market as well as employers demanding more focused skill-sets from job seekers, have heightened the value of internships that connect work-integrated learning to future workplace opportunities. Skeptics have questioned whether community service learning could augment or even be considered equally valuable to work-integrated learning. Community service learning is designed to produce mutually beneficial outcomes for educational institutions and community organizations, but what about the student? For example, what value would the experiential learning activities of helping at a food bank provide a business/finance student who wants to become an investment banker? Is the rise of community service learning a direct result of the lack of more career-focused, work-integrated, paid internship opportunities?

The increasing competitiveness of today’s job market is not a new phenomenon, however; countless students over the decades already participate in summer jobs, which may or may not be relevant to their academic discipline; or co-op programs, which prepare students with job-related skills and knowledge. But in the 21st century, the pressure is clearly more intense for graduating students to be ready for employment. Community service learning has since sprung up as a valuable experience that enhances learning activities with the experience of community service. The question now is: could community service learning actually lead to better employment prospects and higher earning power for students?

Traditional methods of classroom instruction have raised questions about the relevance of acquired knowledge (theory) to its application to real-world problems and the search for real-world solutions (practice) that are technologically, economically, environmentally, politically and culturally sound. Educators have long recognized the need to connect course content to the real world outside the classroom by developing a more stimulating learning environment that is engaging and enjoyable for students. While one might argue that community service learning at best provides a tenuous link from the food bank to the investment bank, there can be no doubt that it will help students develop their critical thinking, define their core values, build their sense of social responsibility, and hone their leadership skills.

It is important for educational institutions and community organizations to impress upon students that community service learning can help with their career preparedness by improving their personal, academic and social skills development. It challenges students to work with groups from different backgrounds and demographics; collecting learning experiences in psychology, human rights, youth and children’s studies, public health, social work, urban planning, and other professions. Engaging other community stakeholders (including non-profits) to create positive change provides a real world platform to evaluate career choices, not only for potential financial reward, but also personal, emotional and spiritual fulfillment. It builds employment skills in the tradition of vocational training as a career-based learning approach. When integrated with community development, community service learning can effectively raise awareness and interest in community issues beyond the student population. The sense of communal responsibility fosters a sense of empowerment through active citizenship.

Community service learning improves student engagement by encouraging them to invest more effort, interest and time into meaningful educational experiences. Students apply their classroom training and research skills to tackle the challenges in their community and gain hands-on experience. This process improves their problem solving, critical thinking, and analytical skills. Strong partnerships with community organizations such as non-profit or social profit organizations, schools, community centers and social agencies provide learning opportunities that enhance the student’s knowledge, self-esteem, interpersonal skills and expand their career choices. They create mentoring relationships, as teacher and student, and promote networking within their peers.

Community service learning is an important step to career readiness that is often overlooked. By understanding the true benefits and learning opportunities of giving back to our neighborhoods, students will realize that service is of value, both to the community, and for personal development.

(I wrote this blog post for Pearson Students during my tenure as a member of the 2016–2017 Pearson Student Advisory Board. You can see the original post here: http://www.pearsoned.com/education-blog/theres-community-service-think/.)