Using Volunteering Jobs to Transition into a New Career

17 years ago, I quit my job, packed up my things, and moved with my soon-to-be husband from Texas to Florida. I knew absolutely no one in Florida, and I had no job lined up. On top of that, I wanted to change my career from accounting to some kind of counseling work.

"Thank you Volunteers cake" by San Jose Library, on FlickrThank goodness, I managed to find a bridge job in my former field (after first working for a temp agency), which provided an income during my transition. Once I had that in place, I began exploring my interest in counseling by taking a volunteering job. I figured I’d better dip my toe in the water first and be sure that’s what I wanted before investing any time and money into a new career.

I discovered two things from my experience – 1) that my career change would be well worth it, and 2) that volunteering jobs can be a powerful career change strategy.

As a volunteer, you get to…

Explore your interest

Volunteering jobs offer a perfect opportunity to explore your interests before committing yourself to a career change. They’re a chance to experiment and try new skills on for size. Through my volunteer work, I was able to talk with people who were actually working in the field, which helped me get a very clear picture of the day-to-day realities of the job I was interested in.

As you explore, you might even discover an interest you didn’t realize you had. But you’ll never know what you can find out about yourself until you get out there.

Gain experience

If you’re looking to make a career change, volunteering jobs are a viable option for learning new, “transferable” skills that you can later show on your résumé. And if you’re unemployed, your volunteer job demonstrates to potential employers that you’re continuing to contribute and stay up to date with your existing skills. Either way, your best bet is to choose volunteer work that’s relevant to the work you’re seeking.

Make new networking contacts

I met some wonderful people while serving as a volunteer, several of whom provided references later in my job search. An added benefit for me, as someone new to the area, was that I got to know the people in my community.

Your main reason for doing volunteer work should be to have fun and do something you enjoy, not to gain contacts. But if you want to make the most of your experience, find ways to build your network by supporting the people you meet. As with any kind of career networking, one thing often leads to another.

Once you’re in a volunteer position, treat it as seriously as you would a paid job. Show your enthusiasm and be willing to do what’s asked of you. Look for ways you can add value to the organization. After all, it’s not unheard of for volunteers to be considered for paid positions.

Where to find volunteer work

You don’t have to move as far away as I did. You can start right where you are.

One of the best sources for finding local volunteer opportunities is VolunteerMatch. They allow you to use your zip code to search for volunteer positions near your home. You can also narrow down your search by interest or the skills you’d like to use. If you don’t find an opportunity this way, try directly contacting organizations you’re interested in to offer your services.

You might also want to check out the tips in Encore.org’s guide called How Can I Turn Volunteering Into a Job? It’s part of their larger guide to finding encore careers.

With all the budget cuts currently going on in public agencies and nonprofits, organizations are relying more than ever on volunteers. Even if your volunteering jobs don’t directly lead to paid work, they can help you begin to lay the groundwork for the career change you want to make. And best of all, you get to make a difference in people’s lives.

What types of volunteer opportunities interest you?

Photo credit: San Jose Library / CC license

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  • This is a great suggestion. If people think about it, many college students end up getting jobs this way when they do internships or volunteer somewhere as a student, so why wouldn’t it work for other people looking for a career change or looking for new employment after a layoff or something. You’ve laid out the benefits and how-to’s very nicely!

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