Finding the Right Job When You're Between Jobs

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By Vickie Elmer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 12, 2009

Becca Gurney wasn't surprised when she was laid off after the elections of 2006 and 2008. The graphic artist knew that came with political work.

Each time, she took some time away from her job hunt to volunteer. After the 2006 election, she created a brochure for Arts on the Block, a nonprofit group in Montgomery County.

It "exercised the creative muscles," said Gurney, an Arlington resident who has worked in graphic design since 2001. "It kept me on my toes. . . . I felt like I had something that's really worthwhile" to work on. Plus, then she could say she could create a brochure, which led to a little paying work.

When you're unemployed, days can stretch long and your talents can languish unless you find something worthwhile and engaging to fill some hours -- as well as those gaps in your résumé or holes in your skillset.

"Go to trade shows. Advance your education. Sign up for classes. Go to your local library," said David Miles, who runs Miles LeHane Cos.-OI Partners, a career transition and leadership coaching business in Leesburg. Find some community service or volunteer work, and look beyond traditional charities.

If you're in human resources, help out at the Society of Human Resource Management. A chamber of commerce may need research done or a networking group established, which would connect you with many small businesses in one area, Miles suggested. Other avenues to do some good and build your skills may be found in local government agencies, downtown associations, libraries, summer schools, churches, or any organization that works with the unemployed and is swamped now.

Before you jump into a fill-in activity or project, be clear what your goals are -- and how much time you can spend on it. Know whether you are doing it to escape the loneliness of job hunting or to add to your résumé.

Think about what your role will be: Being a board member, pro bono consultant or fundraising committee member at a nonprofit will give you a sense of authority and strengthen your résumé. But you might get more satisfaction from helping out at a Girl Scouts camp with arts and crafts projects.

"Let that organization know what it is you want to do. Don't show up and say, 'Use me.' Have a plan," Miles said. Choose an organization or causes that interest you or that suit your passions or career.

After November's elections, Gurney saw many nonprofit groups with projects matching her talents and time. She chose one in education because most of her family works in the field.

"It's still building my portfolio and doing different things," she said of creating logos and a poster for LevelTen, a nonprofit organization that works with minority students. She's still volunteering there about five or six hours a week since she started in May at the Securities Industry Association.

Gurney found the Arts on the Block assignment through Greater DC Cares, which arranges pro bono consulting gigs for people with at least three to five years of experience.

These "highly skilled volunteers address critical issues that a nonprofit has identified," said Madye Henson, president of Greater DC Cares. They may mentor a new executive director, help develop new financial processes or oversight, reinvent an organizational structure, or rebuild a Web site.

"It becomes a great opportunity for them . . . to leave with a set of references who can speak to the work that they do," she said.

Also look at creating a one-month unpaid internship at a nonprofit group or business, as long as it's in an industry or job where you may want to work, Miles said. Just make sure you don't want to fall into the trap of overpromising and underdelivering.

Gurney, the graphic artist, suggests that jobless volunteers take on a lot -- and develop important skills.

"Take on tasks that will be challenging for you," she said. Be clear that you're learning as you go and may need a little extra time to complete your project. "I needed something productive and challenging to fill my days. . . . You're helping the organization and yourself. It's a win-win."


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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