Volunteering – Does this get you “in”?

As the job market continues to be tight, some of my clients have asked about volunteering as a way to get their foot in the door. A few clients have commented that they had read that this was recommended.  One stated that she was encouraged, by a networking event facilitator, to pursue this option.

 My response is YES and NO. YES, getting inside as a non paid contributor really works. NO, positioning oneself as a “volunteer” will not lead to a job you want.

 Volunteering has the stigma of Kleenex or “gofer”. Kleenex is expendable, “gofers” will do anything most others don’t want to do. If your goal by volunteering is to get inside an organization and to meet the department heads, I believe you are doing yourself a disservice by carrying the brand of “volunteer”. If you want to be hired because you have something unique to offer, being labeled as a volunteer won’t get you there.

 On the other hand, volunteering your time as an intern is another story.  I strongly advocate this approach. In three short months you could position yourself for the dream job. So, what is the difference?  Are internships truly treated differently from volunteer opportunities? Absolutely yes! According to the US Department of Labor’s own definition of internship, this needs to be an educational on-the-job experience which benefits the student more than the employer. Actually, if an employer agrees to take an intern and that person ends up doing “gofer” work, that is not the spirit of what an internship should be (that’s volunteering where anything goes).

 How do you qualify for an internship if you are not a registered college student? Most job hunters in this tight economy are 30-55 years old. Aren’t there complicated qualifications as to what can/cannot be identified as internship quality learning experiences? It is simpler than you realize. Follow these steps.

  1. Begin by identifying the ideal type of position you want to be hired for. Let me use  a recent client as an example.  This client wants to work in a museum in restoring artifacts or art, but the market is very tight.  To even qualify for this type of work requires direct experience and academic preparation. So, we begin by listing all of the museums within driving distance of her home.
  2. Second, we identify the departments in the museums which have any direct application to exhibits, artifacts, art, library, bookstore, exhibit packaging/transportation, etc., and get the names of the department heads.
  3. Third, we find a 2-unit community college class which teaches some aspect of introduction to art conservation, archaeology, museum careers, etc.
  4. Fourth, my client meets with the professor of the class (mentioned in #3 above) and asks for more details about the course and if there are any former students who now work at any of the local museums.
  5. Fifth and last, my client goes to each museum, starting with those who have  former students of the professor, and inquire about an internship as a way to apply the course material. My client clarifies that the internship itself will be personal to her and not to be one for which the student is receiving academic credit. Internships for which a student has to pay for credit requires several layers of supervision by both the campus and the employer. All of this is by-passed if one does not seek academic credit for the hands-on experience.

 Thus, my client gets “in” to experience a rich hands-on learning opportunity. Also, my client gains a relationship with the department head as well as colleagues at the museum. Internships last about 3 months.  Now my client has related work experience and an opportunity to be first in line for the next museum opening.

Yes, this has really worked especially for today’s tight job market. You can do it!