Clarifying your career’s direction through volunteering

I get frustrated with the tired advice of ‘what could you do for free?’, given to those who are seeking clarity on their career’s direction or specialism. With a lack of focus on money-making skills, and more attention on unrealistic daydreaming, this exercise can sometimes provide very few practical solutions.

Applying for a volunteering role takes this exercise a step or two further, and it’s interesting to see how this commitment can really help you be specific about the skills you want to offer.

Careers blog The Muse talks about how:

“[…]volunteering helps you find clarity about the things you love (or don’t) in your career[…] Long story short, the more experiences you give yourself, the better chance you have of learning about the type of work you love doing and the types of environments you excel in.”

This, to me, makes sense. When making your application to volunteer, you’re committing yourself to take on roles for free. You will be accountable to do those all…for free.

As such, you’ll put yourself forward for only the things you can do (your existing skills and experience), the things you will like to develop (a good understanding but having a desire to develop a skill) and within the environment you’re most comfortable (your preferred place of work).

So I’ve given this ago myself for my local CIPD branch – with absolute commitment – and was surprised to see the selected skills that made it through to the final cut in my pitch email.

Give it a go! Are you surprised by the skills that make it through to the final cut? Are there fewer/more than expected?

Professional development while unemployed

I’ve written a lot about what we as fellow avid doers can do to manage our careers and progress professionally, and while I’m a strong believer that with the right attitude anyone can manage their career with confidence, it struck me that there may be a group of people that feel as though this blog doesn’t apply to them – those who are currently out of work.

Now this post doesn’t go into the ins and outs of being in between jobs. The reasons for being out of work are specific to each individual.

Sometimes it’s voluntary, sometimes not. Sometimes it’s a happy experience, sometimes it’s not.

You may be on a career break or maternity leave; you might have been made redundant or left to pursue a career change; you might have decided to spend more time at home to look after your children or might not be well enough at the moment to be working.

So with the multiple reasons and viewpoints on unemployment, I couldn’t possibly begin to write about them.

What I can do though is remind you that if you are in between jobs at the moment, this blog is absolutely for you.

Granted there are a couple of posts that walk you through presentations or writing a business case that you may not be able to put into practice immediately but these are still soft skills that you can put in the bank if and when you return to work.

The majority of the posts can still benefit you. I want to dedicate this post specifically to those who are in between jobs at the moment to explain what you can do to manage your paused career.

Keeping up with the industry

If you are keen to get back to work whether in your current field or a new one, keeping up to date is absolutely essential.

Keeping your finger on the pulse and being kept in the loop with the industry keeps your interest fired which is at risk of dwindling if you’re out of work for too long. You’ll understand what the hot topic du jour is (which can change on a daily basis these days!) so that if you return to work you’re not out of touch either in the workplace or at the interview stage.

Community

Adjacent to the above point, surrounding yourself with the industry’s community while proactively maintaining your spot in it will help you combat the loneliness that comes with being out of work.

As social creatures we need to be surrounded by people, or in career terms, our ‘tribe’. Even us introverts need this (just in different quantities) so by maintaining a strong position within your career community and contributing to it via social media or networking events, you get to have this same social interaction as if you were at work.

As with being part of any ‘tribe’, doing this will also keep your perspective broadened as you hear people’s opinions and experiences on industry matters.

Volunteering

A step further from the previous point is keeping your skills and social interaction sharp by volunteering.

Now, when I heard ‘volunteering’, I used to immediately think of working in a charity shop which doesn’t really float my rubber duck. By no means am I saying this is a bad thing at all; I’m suggesting that many others out there may be thinking the same and feel as though that’s their only option.

It isn’t.

There may be many volunteering opportunities in your local area and the first port of call should be Do-It, the UK’s national volunteering database. You simply enter your postcode or town, the distance you’re willing to travel, and hey presto, you have a list of all your local volunteering opportunities.

I live out in the sticks and a 10-mile radius search for me brings up 238 results.

Don’t want to travel? No problem – select the ‘Do it from home’ option and you’ll usually find even more results.

Be sure that you don’t want to forego the opportunity for the social interaction volunteering provides though as this is something particularly important when you’re out of work. Missing out on socialising that you would normally find on a daily basis at work can lead to mental health issues like depression or low self-esteem.

The volunteering opportunities cover all sorts of skills, requirements and experience. For example, this can be from administration support to being on a board of directors.

There are other volunteering databases out there that focus specifically on the community and your local area, for example Volunteering Matters.

Volunteering is particularly great for those who lack certain experience, for example managing people, but have the correct aptitude for it; these opportunities may allow you to become a volunteer people manager (for a project, or wildlife excursion for example) and thus bring something new to your CV, skillset and future employer.

Being heard

If you enjoy writing, you may want to consider starting an industry-related blog, or if you’re a born entertainer, a vlog, or have a silky smooth radio voice, a podcaster, etc.

I’ve written about this before in my post on developing professional credibility – it’s such a boost to your professional development as you learn a lot about yourself and the industry.

You should have the intent of being heard as a profession contributor rather than looking for a money-maker.

Figuring out new and interesting content can be hard work but it’s also really rewarding. You’ll find yourself researching new topics to strengthen your content, learning heaps from the blogging/vlogging/podcasting/etc. community, as well as demonstrating to new employers your dedication to the profession and your career.

You can find LOADS of tips out there on YouTube and the like about starting any one of these up, but nowadays I’ve discovered that it’s important to remember 4 things:

  • You don’t need to be an expert – you’re perspective is uniquely your own
  • You don’t need fancy equipment – despite the shininess…
  • It’s incredibly easy to set up – technology today makes this ridiculously easy now
  • Procrastination is your enemy – just get it out there and stop faffing with the tiny details!

Courses

Enrolling in a course – whether it’s paid (local college course or distance learning), or free (check out MOOCs out there like FutureLearn) – is another way to keep your skills sharp, while also learning new ones.

If you haven’t already, check out my post on training courses here and here which explain this in more detail.

Re-assessing your career

Taking a breather from work from whatever circumstances gives you an opportunity to think with a clearer head.

In this new headspace you may want to consider a career change and decide which new direction you might want to take.

Transferring your existing skills into a new field is easier when you break the components down and clearly define any skill gaps that need filling.

Check out my 5-post series on discovering which career is right for you. Start with this one and then click ‘Next’ at the bottom of the post until you’ve worked your way through the 5 part series.

(Have you noticed this post has a lot of plugging for my own posts? Told you this blog was relevant to those out of work….#JustSaying)

Starting your own business or side hustle

Spending time out of work may be an opportunity for you to explore starting your own business. This could become a side hustle if you decide to return to work to fund the business until it’s providing enough income, or if you’re happy working on both within a portfolio career.

I realise I say this in such a blaze way – I understand it isn’t easy. I’ve made a go of it a couple of times and it can be demoralising when things don’t happen the way you want, whether that’s not enough money, not enough confidence or losing interest in doing something that sounds fun as a hobby but is torturous doing it all day every day.

I would recommend learning from people who have made a success of it and especially from those who made a number of failures beforehand. These can be found all over the internet and local bookshop.

How to take this forward

By this point hopefully you should be getting a clearer picture on how to keep your career wheels turning even when you’re out of work.

As an added bonus, these are all perfect examples of professional dedication and career management that you can demonstrate in interviews. There may come a point in the interview where you will have to respond to their questions on a job gap.

Usually, this can make people feel uncomfortable but by following the above suggestions, you’ll be able to give them the full itinerary of all the things you’ve been doing while in between jobs. They’ll see someone very self-aware, very busy and very determined.

I must add a huge disclaimer here though before you do anything: check with the appropriate people/officials that any of these activities do not contravene conditions set on your employer’s policies (if you’re on a type of leave) or those set within your receiving of benefits/jobseekers allowance. Please seek professional advice if you are in doubt of these conditions.