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How much does the voluntary sector contribute to employment – and where are these jobs located?

The third sector not only provides services and harnesses voluntary action, but also employs a growing number of people. There is growing interest, from government and elsewhere, in the contribution that voluntary organisations make to society and communities – and this includes their contribution to paid employment. New TSRC research has been examining this contribution, estimating the number and distribution of people working in the voluntary sector using data from the National Survey of Third Sector Organisations (NSTSO 2008) in England.

While there is other research – including TSRC’s own workforce research – which measures the size of the voluntary sector workforce, this research offers new insights. It allows us to capture a broader range of organisations than research based on surveys of individuals, such as the Labour Force Survey. It also allows us to drill down by local area, examining the contribution of the sector to employment in different regions.

Our research estimates that there are at least 1.1 million employees in the third sector in England, just over 5% of the total workforce. This is higher than estimates from the Labour Force Survey, which put the current figure at about 760,000.

The difference in these figures is due to the nature of the survey that the research is based on. The Labour Force Survey asks individuals what type of organisation they work for, capturing as ‘voluntary sector’ those who identify working for a ‘charity, voluntary organisation or trust.’ The NSTSO, which we have used here, surveys third sector organisations. It identifies these organisations as those that ‘serve social, cultural and environmental objectives’. As such, it is likely to capture a much broader range of civil society organisations – including social enterprises, co-operatives, or housing associations –  that people may not always, or as easily, identify as a voluntary organisation.

Both figures are very useful. The Labour Force Survey gives a good estimation of the traditional voluntary or charity sector workforce. It is conducted on an ongoing and regular basis, allowing us to reliably measure growth and change in the voluntary sector workforce. As a survey of individuals, it also allows us to analyse personal characteristics of those that work in the sector.

The NSTSO, on the other hand, helps us to account for a wider notion of the third sector or civil society. It reminds us that what people see as the third sector is fluid, and varies with political and personal persuasion. It also highlights that the sector’s contribution to employment may be greater than we have previously acknowledged.

This research also enables us to reliably measure the contribution of the third sector to employment regionally. The overwhelming message from this is that there is a heavy concentration of third sector employment in London and the South East. London has over a quarter of all third sector employment, and the South East a further 17%. The survey would also allow further research to estimate employment for the 149 upper-tier local authorities, and potentially for Local Economic Partnership (LEP) areas.

The distribution of third sector employment is unlikely to come as much of a surprise, and in many ways mirrors patterns of employment more generally. Yet it is notable that some of the most deprived regions have a lower share of third sector employment than their share of total employment. The North East for example accounts for 4.7% of total employment, but only 3.9% of third sector employment. Yorkshire and Humber accounts for 9.9% of national employment, but only 7.6% of third sector employment.

Of course, the third sector can’t be expected to redress regional inequalities by itself, and the prime concern of most organisations must be to the communities or users they serve. But the voluntary sector also provides a significant contribution in terms of employment – and it may be possible for some organisations to think more about how this translates regionally. For example, large national third sector organisations, funded by donors across the country, might consider the benefits of relocation, in the same way that the civil service has, as a means of saving money. Similarly, local authorities might consider what scope there is to attract large third sector employers and thereby diversify the local economic base.

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