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Ajay Patel, chef de mission, Team BC

The first thought that raced through Ajay Patel’s mind when he found out Vancouver had won the bid for the 2010 Olympics was, “I want to volunteer.”

The 37-year-old father of two already has a well-established career in sports management – he’s the CEO of Gymnastics BC and Team BC’s chef de mission – but he knows first-hand that volunteering at a major event can open up a myriad of career opportunities. Patel’s volunteering goes back to Expo 86 when, as a 17-year-old, he volunteered in guest services and quickly landed a job in the fair’s food and beverage department. Later, while earning his bachelor’s degree in human kinetics at UBC, he helped out the Sport Medicine Council of B.C. and was hired as the council’s sports-aid coordinator upon graduation. Every step of his career, Patel says, was made possible through connections he forged in volunteering. And the Olympics, he predicts, will be no different. “You establish a network, a reputation. People understand what you’re capable of doing: your abilities, your work ethic as well as your demeanour,” he cheerfully observes, adding that sports events are “a great recruiting ground.” But even with his impressive volunteering background, Patel is going to be up against some stiff competition when it comes to securing an unpaid position with Vancouver 2010. When the call goes out in 2008 for 25,000 Games volunteers, it won’t exactly be a first-come, first-served affair, says Dick Vollet, VP of workforce for the Vancouver Olympics Organizing Committee (VANOC). “When it comes to volunteerism and the level of excellence we’re looking to deliver for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, no one’s ever going to ask these people to be this good,” he says, emphatically. “Don’t let it be your first volunteer experience. Make sure you do whatever you can now to get your volunteer resumé brushed up.” Clearly, volunteering for 2010 won’t be a feel-good gesture of just lending a helping hand for a good cause. These gigs are going to be tough to land. Stiff competition is a trend that’s being felt throughout the volunteering world. Colleen Kelly, executive director of Volunteer Vancouver, explains that the sector has become much like its paid-work cousin, where competition is a matter of course. “Unfortunately, the public thinks that anybody can volunteer at anything,” she says. “That’s not the fact. It’s absolutely critical that individuals have the ability to do the job, whether it’s being paid for or not.” At the Olympics, there will be a number of positions that will be filled only by people who have training in sports, she adds, such as timekeepers and officials. So what will Vollet and his staff be looking for when they start putting together their unpaid workforce? “Really good, solid customer-service skills, an outstanding work ethic, flexibility, availability, an understanding of the meaning of team and trust and excellence.” A wide variety of jobs will need to be filled, he says, including taking tickets, helping load busses, assisting guests and working in the VIP lounges with Olympic families. Vollet says he’ll be keeping an eye out for highly skilled people who’ll get to schmooze with the bigwigs. “They’ll be really focused on working in the Olympic village with the athletes and the Olympic lounges with some Olympic family guests.” He’ll also be on the lookout for team leaders; individuals who rise to the top, he says, will be invited to lead groups of volunteers through their training. Yes, it’s a tall order, but there will be plenty of people throwing their hats into the ring. Vollet is expecting thousands of applications to flow in once the call goes out in 2008. “We’re anticipating there will be a large subscription,” he says. “One of our biggest challenges will be managing the expectations of all those individuals and getting the selection down to the 25,000.” The potential business connections are only one of the benefits Patel is looking forward to; he’s also enthusiastic about sharing the so-called Olympic experience. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it’s going to happen in my backyard,” he says. “I saw what [Expo 86] did for the city. It was great being part of that. I think that was a huge turning point for me.” He adds that for him, not participating is not an option: “How can you not have some part in the Games if you’re passionate about sport?” As far as Kelly is concerned, that’s the right attitude to have if you’re going to be volunteering. “Connections with people happen quite spontaneously,” she says. “You meet people and connections come later on. It’s not something you can plan for. If you plan for it, you’ll look to be too calculating, and that’s not the kind of person others are looking for.” While Vollet and Kelly prefer to point out the intangible benefits of volunteering – the sense of community, the feelings of pride and belonging – they do acknowledge that volunteering in the Games will most definitely lead to career opportunities for many who take part, both directly and indirectly. In fact, Olympic volunteers could find themselves being courted by various companies, according to Vollet. “We’ve heard anecdotal stories from past Games where some of our top sponsors from around the world will want access to our volunteer base for recruitment needs,” he says. “In this tight labour market we’re in right now, we have businesses, not only sponsors, that look to the volunteer base and say, ‘How do we get access to that, and how do we recruit them as employees?’” Vollet confirmed plans are in place to provide a job-matching service for all Games workers, both gainfully employed and unpaid: “We’ll have an outplacement plan for our workforce, including volunteers, which will allow sponsors and other employers to access our employees.” Details of the service are yet to be determined. Vollet says the plan won’t be developed until the end of 2008 or the beginning of 2009. “The skills that our volunteers are going to leave the Games with really transfer quite nicely back into working in any environment, in any corporate world,” says Vollet. “Most people in the business world have absolutely no idea of how community organizations work,” adds Kelly. Volunteers learn how new systems work and how organizations work, she explains, adding that “the volunteer has an opportunity to learn new communication skills that they can take back to the workplace.” Patel says he’s hoping to volunteer in a capacity that will put him in contact with as many people as possible. “I’ll do anything, from driving the airport bus, to being a host, to guest services, to overseeing venues. I want to do something where I get to interact with the people who will be visiting our city.” He’s already doing all he can to ensure he’ll stand out from the crowd of people clamouring to be part of the Games. “I volunteer on a number of community boards, and I also give my time up to associations like BC Athlete Voice with Tourism BC,” he says. His impressive professional qualifications, he knows, are not enough to earn him a volunteer badge come 2010. “Really, it’s volunteer time I have to contribute.” [pagebreak] How to get in the GamesStart volunteering in your community as soon as possible. The more events experience you have, the greater the likelihood you’ll be recruited. • Develop one or two important event skills when volunteering, such as crowd control, hospitality or timekeeping. VANOC will be looking for some highly skilled volunteers who will take on greater responsibilities – and who’ll have the opportunity to schmooze with the VIPs. • Be prepared to book time off work. If you plan on volunteering during the Games, you’re going to have to be flexible. If you’re only going to be available after 5 p.m., you simply won’t get picked. • Prepare for your volunteering interview as you would any job. Get your resumé up to date, practise mock interviews with a colleague or friend and present yourself as an enthusiastic, energetic professional. • When you start your volunteer position, embrace it as an experience in and of itself, not as a means to an end. If you go in determined to make specific connections and get a paid job, you could well turn people off. Consider a potential career boost as a side benefit to volunteering, not the main goal. Case Study: Career swap Back in his native Australia, Peter Simpson was a derivatives trader. Today the 33-year-old Vancouver resident is director of marketing and sponsorship for Sport BC. How did he navigate such a drastic career change? He volunteered. More specifically, he volunteered with 2010 Legacies Now during the Olympic bid process. Back in 1998, while working in Tokyo, Simpson helped crunch some numbers at the Nagano Olympic Winter Games. That was when he realized how volunteering could help him develop new skills and move into a different career, he says. “It opened me up to the world of volunteerism and the special positions that go along with working at such huge events,” he recalls. “I had been working in the markets for seven years, and I was getting a bit sick of it.” In 2000 Simpson had the opportunity to return to Australia but decided to move to Vancouver because he sensed the run-up to 2010 would provide opportunities to get involved in sports marketing. “One of the reasons I came here,” he explains, “is if Vancouver was going to win the Olympics, the city was going to have a real boom, just as Sydney had.” Simpson’s first order of business upon landing in B.C. was to sign up as a volunteer with the Vancouver-Whistler 2010 Bid Corp. During his nine-month wait for a work visa, he volunteered at an information booth at Whistler, greeting visitors. “Half the community was for the Olympics and half was against it,” he recalls. “My job was to greet people and explain what type of impact the Olympics would have on the community.” After a year, the volunteer position became a paid one. In early 2003, he moved on to a six-month paid position at 2010 Legacies Now in sport promotion, which in turn led to working in PR and community relations for the 2003 World Weightlifting Championships, held in Vancouver. In July 2005, he began working at Sport BC. Even while gainfully employed, Simpson continued to volunteer at various sporting events, including the 2004 World |Junior Badminton Championships, |which were held in Richmond, and the 2006 World Junior Hockey Championships, which were held in Kamloops, Kelowna and Vancouver. “One of the great things about volunteering, particularly with small events, is it gives you experience in a whole range of different aspects or different types of skills,” he observes. “On small events, you get to taste a whole bunch of different things. Things like PR, hospitality, athlete services, protocol, staging, games operations.” When asked whether he plans on doing more volunteering, Simpson is blunt: “I kind of feel that I’ve done the volunteer part and that’s led to a position now – it’s always nice to be paid for what you love doing.” Are you experienced? If you want to take part in the Games, you’ll need to fatten up your volunteering resumé, with a focus on events. Luckily, in the run-up to 2010, there will be plenty of opportunities to do just that. “There are some significant things happening in our province as a result, in some cases, of the Games because we’ve got a lot of world attention right now,” points out Mary MacKillop, director of Volunteers Now at 2010 Legacies Now (a non-profit group originally formed to support the Olympic bid, and now working to create sustainable legacies in sport and recreation, arts, literacy and volunteerism). Events coming our way in the coming months include the 2009 World Police & Fire Games; the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada (it takes place June 30 to July 22 in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Edmonton, Burnaby and Victoria); and the third annual Wake Up Canada! Golf Tournament for Ovarian Cancer Canada, coming this August to the Mayfair Lakes Golf and Country Club in Richmond. Already, B.C. has played host to the 2005 Grey Cup and the 2007 Memorial Cup. But you don’t just have to think of sports. As MacKillop notes, “We’re a province of major community events: festivals, cultural events, film fests. All those things that happen in the community are reliant on volunteers.” The easiest way to get in the loop about what’s happening is to visit Volunteers Now’s free, online listing of event-volunteer opportunities in the province at volweb.ca. Listings on the site include everything from arts festivals to golf tourneys, which means, even if you aren’t a sports nut or struck by Olympic fever, you can still get involved in some of the major events to make connections, develop skills and kick your career into overdrive. The VANOC website also has a list of links to volunteering opportunities in various Olympic and Paralympic sports. And don’t forget, VANOC has a need for pre-Games volunteers from time to time. Visit vancouver2010.com and click on “Participation” to find out more.