Gain Job Skills Through Volunteering

Sisyphus was a trickster in ancient Greek mythology. His antics so enraged his fellow Greeks that he was sentenced to spend his days rolling a large stone up a hill -- only to have it escape his grasp and roll back down, just before he reached the top.

Perhaps a lack of job-hunting success has you feeling a bit like Sisyphus. You can't get a job because you have no experience, and you have no experience because you can't get a job. But take heart: you're not Sisyphus. You can take action to change your fate. The answer is volunteering.

Volunteering helps you gain that all-important work experience, which may be the final push you need to surmount the job-hunting hill. And that's not all; volunteer work can offer much more. Volunteering also increases your network of contacts. A recent survey evealed that nearly 71 percent of business managers made hiring decisions based on referrals from their family members, friends or business associates.

Volunteering can be an effective stepping-stone to the career you desire, but it's not just a matter of signing up; many elements need to be considered. If you do your research and plan carefully, not only will you have the opportunity to serve your community, but you'll also be taking a step toward achieving your career goals.

Evaluate: determine your interests and skills and what experience you hope to gain

For some, questions about life aspirations are invitations to gush about abundant plans, hopes, and dreams. But for the less focused and determined, these questions may be a source of consternation.

"Not all of us know exactly what we want to do in our lives," says Marjorie Cayford, director of community referrals at a volunteer center. "But usually, just taking some time to think about what we are good at and what we enjoy doing gives us a better idea."

Most volunteer organizations employ volunteer coordinators who will help you determine which opportunities best suit your interests and skills. However, Cayford says, "The best way to find out which career you're suited for is to actually do volunteer work in your field of interest and then see if that sort of thing still appeals to you or not."

Prepare: get organized and ready to acquire and perform a volunteer assignment

Joan Shibelbein is the manager of career and placement services at a university. She, recommends starting with a small assignment to ensure you don't ask too much of yourself. She says that'll reduce the risk that you'll become discouraged by failing to complete a large assignment. Too often, a disappointing experience can result in a vow never to get involved again.

Shibelbein also suggests getting involved in volunteering as early as possible. "Most people don't realize that competition for the good volunteer jobs is getting stiffer and stiffer," she says. "In some cases, you actually need to have volunteer experience before you can get certain volunteer jobs!" When applying for a volunteer job, Shibelbein says, "Present yourself to your volunteer supervisor the same as you would if you were applying for a paying job."

Some volunteer jobs require you to submit your medical record -- and even your criminal record, if you have one -- before accepting you as a volunteer. Many require specific training or skills; obviously, you wouldn't be allowed to try to balance your community league's financial books unless you already had some accounting experience. Before you accept a volunteer assignment, you'll have to research all of the assignment's requirements, and then prepare yourself to meet them.

Research: Discover the volunteer opportunities available to you

Cayford says the majority of volunteers are recruited by friends and family members, or by the organizations in need via the media. Another popular way to find a volunteer position is by approaching the appropriate administrator at the organization you wish to serve. This method is particularly effective in the pursuit of paid employment because it demonstrates initiative to potential employers.

However, Cayford adds, discovering a need and filling the void yourself makes an even stronger impression. For example, it is fine to say that you helped an organized group pick up litter along a highway, but it is much better to be able to say on your resume that you organized a public clean-up program yourself. Another way to find a volunteer job is to visit a volunteer center in your area. These centers operate much like an employment agency, posting opportunities on bulletin boards, in binders, or on a computer database.

Cayford says that most people who come to her volunteer center are surprised to discover so many volunteering options. Getting involved with service organizations is a great way to volunteer, especially if you want to do charity work in your community. One drawback of service club work is that you lose the freedom to choose and control much of your volunteer experience. However, proving that you can work for a large organization demonstrates that you are a good team player, a skill many human resource managers look for when hiring and promoting employees.

Don't commit to any assignment until you're comfortable with their cause, and the volunteer position you've been assigned. It's not hard discovering volunteer opportunities: the key is finding one that meets your personal and scheduling requirements.

"You may not be able to find the perfect job," Cayford says, "but if you prioritize your goals, there are so many volunteer opportunities around that you're bound to find something that works for you."

Participate: perform your assigned duties and connect with colleagues, superiors and those who benefit from your work

Employers are often looking for candidates who have completed volunteer assignments that required specific attributes, such as leadership or managerial skills. During your volunteer stint, take advantage of any orientation or training that you are offered, and look for opportunities to do more than is required.

For example, if you're volunteering as a "gofer" at a newspaper because you'd like to be a reporter, don't be content to run to the deli to pick up everyone's lunch. Ask if you can help carry equipment to a press conference. Once there, observe how the journalists conduct themselves: you could even practice taking notes on the conference yourself. Afterwards, don't forget to add all the training and experience you've gained to your resume.

When seeking paying work while volunteering, keep your volunteer schedule flexible so that you are available for job interviews on short notice. Be honest with your supervisor: let them know of your job-hunting activities. This way, you've let the appropriate person know your priorities, and you haven't promised more than you can deliver. It's also important if you're counting on a good reference. Your credibility will definitely suffer if your supervisor has less than flattering things to say about you to a potential employer.

When you accept a volunteer assignment, you immediately expand your personal network. Every person you meet is a potential lead to a new job. Just as you should try to gain as much training and experience as you can while volunteering, you should also attempt to meet and get to know as many people as possible.

Remember, however, that befriending others based solely on what you believe they can do for you is exploitative and will reflect on you negatively. Treat everyone the way you'd like to be treated, and keep an open mind; you never know who might help you and how.

Transition: end your volunteer commitment and begin working for money

Perhaps your volunteer job is so enjoyable that you hate to leave it. But if you must, Marjorie Cayford says, "Do so with courtesy. Leaving a volunteer job is not the same as leaving a real [paying] job, so you don't have the same obligation to give your employer two weeks notice, but it's a thoughtful thing to do."

If you get discouraged because you are not getting the experience you expected, talk to your volunteer supervisor about adjusting your role to better suit your needs. It is constructive to communicate to the appropriate people your thoughts and ideas before leaving your post. Don't be critical or negative; focus on providing feedback that will improve the situation for the next volunteers.

Cayford says it's rare for a volunteer to attain paid employee status within the same organization, although it does happen. The more conventional way to procure paying work is by advertising your volunteer experience and being persistent.

Whatever your reason for volunteering, if you plan carefully and immerse yourself in the experience, you won't regret it. Through volunteering you'll discover the truth inherent in life's beautiful paradox: giving and being good to others is the best thing you can do for yourself.