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Volunteering Your Way to a Job

Working without pay can lead to major gains!

By Molly Joss

Okay, so what's the deal? Why am I devoting an entire column to the subject of volunteering in a space usually reserved for talking about tech jobs? Because volunteering, even though it's work you do without pay, can provide substantial practical benefits. And it might even help improve your karma score.

Volunteering can be a great way to network with other people in the IT field and meet people who can give you a job now or in the near future. And you know how all the job ads specify prior experience requirements? Well, volunteering counts as experience. Just make sure you seek out volunteer opportunities that utilize your skills. And thanks to the Internet, it's easier than ever to find volunteer experiences that make the most of your talents. The right assignments can improve your tech skills and help you learn new ones.

In addition, volunteer experience can help set you apart from other candidates in a job search. Potential employers like to see volunteer experience on resumes, and more and more companies are asking their employees to spend time helping others. The Points of Light Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes volunteerism, recently reported that major technology companies have established employee loaner programs in which they pay employees to work for non-profit companies for several months. The companies feel their employees are helping to serve the community while they learn valuable business skills. For example, Cisco's Leadership Fellows Program places employees in a job with a non-profit organization for six to twelve months.

Skills-Based Volunteering

Of course, helping people in need can be as simple as working in a soup kitchen one night a week or wrapping presents for needy children at Christmas time. However, if you'd like to broaden your skills or pick up some much-needed experience for your resume, try a volunteer gig related to IT.

There are many non-profit companies that can't afford to increase their IT staff for special projects. They may be looking for tech volunteers, which will allow you to gain experience while helping others.

If you are sincere about your desire to help and are able to make a commitment to an organization for the time period that the project requires, most organizations are eager for your help-even if you haven't finished your degree or you lack some of the experience needed.

If you don't have big blocks of time to donate, you can look for a local opportunity that will allow you to work for a few hours a week onsite. If you want to spend part or all of a school break or your summer volunteering, however, then you can consider going to another city or country. You can broaden your horizons while you're broadening your skills.

A great place to get started when looking for volunteer opportunities is on your own campus. Talk to a career services advisor about what you'd like to do, and see if they have suggestions. Another great place to start is in your own heart. Look for organizations related to causes near and dear to you, like organizations fighting chronic illness or a social woe. Whatever the case, there are undoubtedly people out there working to fix problems that matter to you. A quick Web search for related non-profits will help you find such organizations. Email a few of them to see if they have volunteer programs or could use some IT help.

,P>Another way to find opportunities is to check Web sites related to volunteering in general. United Way is an international organization that helps non-profits obtain funding and volunteers. Through the United Way Web site (unitedway.org), you can learn more about volunteering and contact your local United Way office for more opportunities in your area.

Volunteermatch.com is a well-organized site that lets you zero in on openings close to your home or in another part of the country. This site also lists "virtual volunteer" positions which can be done mostly, or completely, online. Many of the virtual opportunities are related to the computer field; you can spend time helping others without leaving your dorm room.

I checked out the opportunities in my area through volunteermatch.com. I put in my zip code and expanded the mileage range to 60 miles. Then I selected "Computers & Technology" as my interest area. I found listings of organizations looking for help with Web site design, database creation and development, and lots of training and tutoring opportunities for low income adults, needy kids, and people with disabilities.

Many of the online listings are for organizations looking for help with their Web sites-from getting the site up and running to graphics support and help with design. I even found a few groups that wanted help creating and maintaining blogs.

Looking around at the listings for various major cities, I found some opportunities that offered valuable experience in using cool technologies. For example, the Rainforest Foundation is looking for a New York based volunteer to help create KML layers and placemarks for Google Earth. The listing says, "This is a great opportunity for a Google Earth buff or programmer who is interested in helping us raise awareness about indigenous rights and the environment."

Something to Offer, Lots to Gain

Sometimes when you're neck-deep in your schoolwork, worried about your student loans and just trying to find time to get the laundry done, it's easy to lose sight of the value of the education you are pursuing. There aren't enough people with IT skills in the workforce to help every company make the best use of technology-and it's harder for organizations that can't afford to pay big salaries or offer stock options to find the help they need. Your skills are valuable.

Doing volunteer work lets you help others while helping yourself learn and grow. Plus, you never know who is going to be at the next keyboard over-it could be the person who tells you about an outstanding job opportunity. Or, it could be a VP at a big firm in the area who is putting in his or her own volunteer hours-and looking for some new employees. Volunteering can be your key to new skills, experiences and maybe to landing a great paying gig down the road.

Molly Joss is an IT veteran who writes about career and job issues, among other topics of note.

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