Volunteer Work: 5 Ways To Use It to Get a Paying Job

Last Updated Sep 13, 2011 2:00 PM EDT

You don't have to be President Obama to realize that many Americans still need new jobs. Long-term unemployment is still plaguing millions. But there is one type of job that is usually easily available: volunteer positions. If you're unemployed, a paycheck is clearly paramount. However, putting in a few hours of free labor each week, while you apply for paying jobs, can definitely be worth your while, say experts.

"I have a number of clients who volunteered and then got paid work," says David Couper, a career coach, consultant, and author. "One volunteered on the board of a not-for-profit education group and got hired full-time as director. Another woman worked with a group for women in need and got referrals from the leaders of the charity. She is [now] moving from working for a for-profit to a not-for-profit."

And even if you're not currently looking for a new job, volunteering can help you gain valuable new skills. Here are 5 ways to use your volunteer gig to boost your career:

1. Tell The Volunteer Organization What You Want To Do If you're working for free, you have more flexibility to choose the job you're offering to do, rather than the other way around. "If you have been a receptionist, but you want to be a office manager and project manager, describe that 'want to be' position. Then line up a volunteer organization with that goal in mind," says Laura Rose, founding of Rose Coaching. Her example: "If you are looking for a project management position, volunteering at Habitat for Humanity to paint window sills is nice, but won't be as useful as getting that office administrative position."

2. Make Sure You Get The Skills You Need As Rose stated, you're using volunteering to build your career, so make sure to choose projects specifically for what skills they give you. This may be especially helpful for those trying to change industries. "For example, if you find a volunteer position in development and fundraising, but you don't have those skills, chances are a volunteer position will be willing to train you. Then, you can take those newly acquired skills into the job market," says Sara Sutton-Fell, CEO and founder of FlexJobs. This skill-building strategy may also be particularly useful for older workers who might not have been trained in current technologies while in school. So if you have 20 years of experience in advertising but haven't mastered SEO and other online tactics, consider working on a local non-profit's website and blog.

3. Use Volunteer Work To Fill Gaps In Your Work History If you're going on job interviews after being unemployed, volunteering can be a talking point that can fill in gaps in your work history. It can also create solid experience if you're a recent college grad, says Mary Marino, Founder of Employment Pipeline: "For example, a recent PR grad could help promote a cause by using their transferable skills like writing releases, content curating, and using social networking. That way, a potential employer can see that a candidate not only got up and did something between jobs, but also used and refined their skills and knowledge."

4. Network Like It's Your Job Networking at a volunteer job is no different than networking at a paid one, or at an internship. "You never know when you're going to be restoring a house with your future boss, or running a literacy program with Bill Gates' cousin," says Tony Morrison, Vice President at Cachinko. "Additionally, many nonprofit organizations pull from their volunteers to fill open (paid) positions in the organization or within their partnering organizations; you never know where your next job lead will come from."

5. Put It On Your Resume According to a new study from LinkedIn, less than half of all job candidates list volunteer work on their resume, a huge missed opportunity. "Depending on how much space you have or how much 'actual' work experience you have, you can treat your volunteer work as a job on the resume -- provide a description of the work and your accomplishments in the position. You might even say how many hours you dedicated to the 'job' each week or month," says Kimberly Schneiderman, founder of City Career Services. Last week, LinkedIn announced that it had added a new field in its member profiles specifically for volunteer experience, making noting it there easier than ever.

Do you list volunteer jobs on your resume? Why/why not? Please share in the comments below.
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    Amy Levin-Epstein is a freelance writer who has been published in dozens of magazines (including Glamour, Self and Redbook), websites (including AOLHealth.com, Babble.com and Details.com) and newspapers (including The New York Post and the Boston Globe). To read more of her writing, visit AmyLevinEpstein.com.

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