We’ve all been in a situation where we were unable to work. Maybe it was because the local economy didn’t pay well enough to make it worth it and there were no positions at the Embassy. Maybe you had restrictions on working because there was no bilateral work agreement. Maybe your family situation prevented you from being away from your house or kids for too long.
Different people handle that situation very differently. Some people are comfortable with it and take advantage of the time to focus on something other than their professional life. Others become frustrated and are itching to use the skills they are accustomed to using in their careers.
If you currently have some time in which you will not be working (for whatever reason), you’ll want to take a long, hard look at how to use this time in a strategic way so it helps you meet your future professional goals. And, as you may guess by the title of this article, one of the best ways to stay connected to your profession when you are not working in a paid position is to volunteer.
Almost all of us have volunteer experience but we haven’t always volunteered in a way that would further our careers or allow us to change careers. Volunteering with a plan for where it will get you in the short or long-term is easy if you pay attention to a few key factors:
Use your unique skill set.
Take stock of your skills and where you can really add value. If your background is in IT, offer to clean-up or redesign the organization’s website or set up a mailing list or design the presentations for an upcoming fundraising event. While the organization may be soliciting volunteers to take tickets at the event, you are not best serving the organization or yourself by taking tickets. Tell the organization exactly what you can do for them so they (and you) benefit from the relationship.
When you volunteer, you’ll probably have the opportunity to interact on a regular basis with the organization’s paid employees and other volunteers. Invest some time in developing relationships with them. If you are using this volunteer experience to stay connected to your career or explore a new career, you’ll want to add your colleagues to your network.
When I think about volunteering, the first thing that pops into my head is building a house for Habitat for Humanity or serving food at a homeless shelter. But “volunteering” can also include your work at your child’s school or at your spouse’s place of work. If your spouse is working at an Embassy, you have a Community Liaison Office and, chances are, that Community Liaison Office staff would love your help in a ton of areas. Thinking about getting into graphic design and want to see what it feels like before you decide to pursue an online program? Offer to design all the decorations for an upcoming CLO event. Or try selling some printable designs that you’ve been playing with in your own Etsy shop or help your friends plan their Christmas party or their child’s birthday party. Start using your skills.
Include volunteering in your job search.
Holding both professional and volunteer positions gives you a wide range of examples and skills that you can use in all four major pillars of your job search. You can include your volunteer experience on your resume under a “volunteer experience” section or even within your “professional experience” section if it is relevant and you volunteered with one organization on a regular basis (weekly) for an extended period of time (one year or more).
You may want to use an example of your relationships or networks as a volunteer in your cover letter. In an interview, you’ll have a lot of examples of situations and how you handled particular issues that you can use. Finally, as a volunteer, you’ll be meeting more people and expanding your network of contacts and people that can recommend you for a paid position now or in the future.
Consider what you want to get out of it.
As you are considering where to volunteer, first figure out what you want to get out of it. Do you want to know whether this is a field you’d like to work in? Do you want to keep practicing your skills? Do you want to acquire new skills? Do you want to make friends? Do you want to become fluent in your new language? The answers to these types of questions will guide you in determining where you will volunteer.
Let’s say that the main goal for you is expanding your network. You may consider volunteering at an organization that you know is well connected to international business in your current city. Something like the American Chamber of Commerce might be a good place to start.
If your goal is to acquire new skills, determine exactly what skills you want for your next position. You can do this by looking at job announcements that interest you and identifying the skills they want to see in their ideal candidate that you don’t have yet.
Take the reins.
Many organizations that accept volunteers are, unfortunately, not that great at managing their volunteers. As a volunteer, you will be responsible for ensuring that you have work to do, are effective, and achieve the goals you’ve set for yourself with this volunteer opportunity.
If you leave a two- or three-year tour and have spent a year volunteering in a position or with an organization where you were able to practice your skills or acquire new ones and create relationships with people who now respect your professional abilities, you’re are in a perfect position to get back to paid employment in your field.
Anna Sparks is an international career coach and an Eligible Family Member (EFM) who has found fulfilling, paid employment in all four (so far!) tours with the State Department as well as launched her own business. She works with clients all over the world on their resumes, cover letters, interview skills, and networking strategies to ensure that they get the jobs they really want. She’s an expert at defining why gaps in professional experience and diverse work history are actually a plus for the employer. Want to know more? Check her out at www.anna-sparks.com where you can get free guides to spruce up your resume, write a compelling cover letter, and lots of free tips on her blog. Or follow her on Facebook where you can find out about her free monthly webinars on all kinds of topics related to your international job search.