When Alan Smith was living in a hut and waking up to roosters in Tonga as a volunteer for the Peace Corps, finding a job that paid well back in the States was the least of his concerns. He was too busy helping teenagers plant trees along sandy beaches to worry about a 9-to-5 routine.
But upon his return, Smith realized he could use his volunteer experience to his advantage. After a three-month search, he landed a communications position at a public interest law firm in the District. He said he was able to sell the law firm on the communication skills he gained while working as a liaison between youth groups and local leaders in Tonga.
"The experience benefited me in such a broad way that I felt I could bring it to any job and it would be an asset," said Smith, 29, who has moved on to a job as a senior manager in communications for the Greater Washington Board of Trade, a local business group.
Career advisers and human resource managers say that time spent volunteering for organizations such as the Peace Corps is an excellent way for recent college graduates or those considering a career change to gain marketable skills while performing a valuable service.
"If you have the opportunity to do something that you have a passion for, go do it," said Tom Morris, president of Morris Associates Inc., a D.C. career training and placement firm. Morris said he has found that people who volunteer often end up discovering new talents or interests that can be transferred to a job. Concerns about being too far removed from the real world are often misplaced, he added.
Still, people with a lot of public service experience need to look closely at how they present themselves to prospective employers. "A person might put too much emphasis on the 'social' side of what they've been doing," said Morris, noting that hiring managers in the corporate world often pay closer attention to experiences that highlight an applicant's business acumen.
That doesn't mean former volunteers should shy away from the for-profit sector. Morris said many employers will look favorably at the resourcefulness, commitment and courage demonstrated by someone who has been with an organization such as the Peace Corps.
But successful job hunts depend on how well applicants sell themselves, said Susan Eckert, a career coach and professional development consultant in Brightwaters, N.Y.
"You have to be really good at marketing your strengths," she said.
Eckert tells former volunteers to seek out companies and organizations that share their goals. "Then you have like minds and like values," she said.
Those who spend time with AmeriCorps, a domestic national service program, frequently end up pursuing a career based on their service, such as nonprofit management, teaching or social work, said Siobhan Dugan, a spokeswoman for AmeriCorps.
Many Peace Corps veterans also look for work related to their experience overseas, said Robert Michon, who manages the Peace Corps career center in Rosslyn.
Michon said that while Peace Corps volunteers have "had a remarkable experience," their biggest challenge is taking that experience and making it marketable.
Michon said he encourages job seekers to network with former Peace Corps volunteers, many of whom now work for the federal government, nonprofit groups and private-sector firms.
Smith, for one, credits his career success in part to his Peace Corps contacts. He became involved with the Washington chapter of returned volunteers, and now serves as its president.
"That definitely was a great way to expand my network," he said.
Samantha Schasberger, 29, who returned in April from a Peace Corps stint in Senegal, said she hopes her experience will translate into a federal government position that will allow her to travel to Africa.
"I know it takes a while to do this process," Schasberger said of her job hunt. "I'd like to continue making a positive difference, where I am able to keep exploring new cultures or use the cultural knowledge that I gained."