The volunteer hours are important because Elders observe children to determine their skills and interests.
From the age of eight, children in Jonas’s community have to meet a requirement of a certain number of volunteer hours. The volunteer hours are actually very important, because they are essentially a test. The children are carefully observed to determine where their skills and interests lie. The Elders observe where the children are volunteering and how well they work, and use that to determine what job they are assigned.
Jonas’s father explains to him how the Elders knew to give him the assignment of Nurturer, or caretaker for the babies.
“…But again and again, during free time, I found myself drawn to the newchildren. I spent almost all of my volunteer hours helping in the Nurturing Center. Of course the Elders knew that, from their observation." (Ch. 2)
The volunteer hours are so important to determining assignments that children will not be assigned a job until they have completed them. To not get an assignment because you failed to complete volunteer hours is considered a great shame that follows the child throughout his life. When an assignment is given, it is at a huge ceremony the entire community attends.
Jonas is aware that he is being watched.
During the past year he had been aware of the increasing level of observation. In school, at recreation time, and during volunteer hours, he had noticed the Elders watching him and the other Elevens. He had seen them taking notes. (Ch. 2)
As Jonas nears the Ceremony of Twelve, he does not feel that the has done volunteer hours in a concentrated manner. He has just kind of volunteered everywhere, usually with friends. Therefore, he has no idea what assignment he will get. As it turns out, volunteering throughout the community lends him to the assignment of Receiver of Memory, because it shows that he knows a lot about the community and cares about all aspects of it.