Transitioning from the military to civilian employment can be a daunting task. Often, job seekers will throw resume after resume at available jobs, with little to show for their efforts. If a veteran is looking at switching careers, the process can seem even more daunting. What if you are infantry, but you really want to be in human resources? Or if you’re an intelligence officer, but you’d like to work in finance? There are, of course, plenty of ways to bridge the gap between military to civilian employment. As I mentioned in a previous Task & Purpose article, internships are one way. If you’re in the entrepreneur path, Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families entrepreneur programs, such as the V-WISE program, are a good option. Today, though, I want to talk about another option, one you can start while you are still on active duty: volunteering.
As a service member, you are often encouraged to volunteer to boost your promotion and award competitiveness. For a number of reasons, these volunteer instances may be sporadic or episodic and not geared towards a specific long-term purpose. However, approached with intent, volunteering can also serve as a force multiplier for your civilian career aspirations. Here are a few ways volunteering can add value to your civilian job hunt:
1) Gaining Experience – Organizations that rely on volunteers are often more likely to let an inexperienced person try their hand at something than a business looking for a full-time employee will be. Look for organizations that need someone in the skill set in which you are trying to build experience. And, when evaluating opportunities, be sure to use a broad net. For example, say you need experience with human resources (HR). You may not find an organization in your area looking for an HR volunteer, but you may find one looking for a volunteer coordinator. While the two positions may sound different, they have the possibility to build up similar skills, such as recruiting talent, on-boarding newcomers, and resolving issues and grievances.
Be sure to keep these experiences in mind when it comes to job interviews as well. Using an example from your volunteer experience to illustrate a point not only shows your diversity of experience to the hiring manager, it also shows your ability to adapt to a non-military culture and that you don’t see your military experience as your only valuable asset.
2) Developing Connections – Sometimes, it really is all about who you know. Opportunities are usually created by people and knowing the right people can net you the opportunity you’re looking for. This can be particularly helpful if you are changing career fields or relocating to a new area. Many organizations who use volunteers have national and international networks. An individual in the local office of an organization could provide a lead on an available job in a different part of the organization or a different part of the country. Additionally, these individuals may be willing to write letters of recommendation or serve as references.
Other volunteers are also good leverage points. Major companies often include volunteering as part of their employees’ professional development or as part of their philanthropic works. Volunteering at a non-profit could put you shoulder-to-shoulder with an HR manager, hiring authority, or even the CEO of a company you’d be interested in working for. And meeting them in an out-of-office setting gives you a chance to see and be seen without the pressure that often comes with a job interview.
(I can personally attest to this particular benefit, as my performance in a part-time volunteer position and a well-timed conversation with a stranger, who happened to be an Associate Director of a department that was hiring, turned into a full-time GS-12 position at a government agency!)
3) Building Confidence – Volunteering is a window into the civilian world. It can introduce you to new skill sets, new acronyms, and new ways to approach people and leadership, and give you a chance to “fail” at these things before your livelihood is on the line. It can also serve as a safety net and social support during transition – particularly if you start volunteering at a local chapter and then relocate. Additionally, many organizations offer opportunities to sit on their local boards in positions such as Treasurer, Director of Programs, or even President or Vice President, or join committees that help with specific tasks, such as planning their annual gala or their largest fundraiser. The demands on your time are usually minimal and the environment often relatively informal, providing a low-risk, high-reward environment to develop confidence in key skillsets that you may not use in the military, but may be very helpful in your civilian career.
Whether you’re trying out a volunteer role in a career field that interests you, networking, or just finding a way to do some good, volunteering can build your confidence. It can show you, if nothing else, that you can “fit in” somewhere other than the military, that you will be welcomed into a new community, and that you have skills that other people are going to find valuable.
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