Utilising Skills Learned in the Voluntary Sector to Return to Paid Employment

Whether you’ve been caring for children, running your own small business, or had a lengthy period of unemployment, it can be daunting trying to make your way back to the traditional paid work force. Sometimes it feels like people don’t take you seriously and it can be hard to get employers to see that you’ve been acquiring new skills even while you weren’t earning a regular salary. Salary.com may do an annual survey measuring what a Mom is worth ($112,962 per annum in 2012) but that doesn’t mean an HR director will value your skills when sifting through a stack of resumes. The move to online applications with their key-word criteria can make it even harder to get in the door. Having been through this ourselves and helped guide others through the process over the years, we’ve tried to capture a few ideas to help you make the most of the skills and increase your chances of landing an interview.

Begin at the begining and identify what it is you like to do. Take the back of an old envelope and draw a line through the middle. On the top half jot down the things you liked doing in your last job and in any volunteer work you do. This isn’t an exhaustive list of everything you like to do in life (which is why you only get the back of an envelope) and it isn’t about discovering your hidden passion for Ikebana. It is a quick list of those things that make work exciting (or even tolerable) to you. On the bottom half, make note of all the things you didn’t like doing. Be honest with yourself. For example, I loved thinking up activity ideas for the boy’s scout group, assembling the necessary materials and creating the delivery plan. Being surrounded by 23 small boys doing 27 different things, not so much. I will absolutely not be following many of my friends who are returning to work by becoming primary school teachers. If you love being the treasurer of the school PTA because you like the detailed work of assuring an events financial success but you don’t like making calls asking for donations, that’s important. You may be happier in a back office role that in a sales job. If you love helping out with the reading group at your kids school but don’t like stuffing envelopes in the school office, you probably want to look for jobs that are people (possibly little people) facing rather than coding transactions in a cubicle not speaking to anyone all day. Using this quick exercise can help you identify the kinds of jobs you should be applying for as they will be a better fit for your personality.

Next you need to qualify and quantify the skills you have. You need to articulate what you’ve learned in the time you weren’t in paid employment. A line on your resume that says “Chair of the Jones School Annual Summer Party” doesn’t tell a potential employer that this is an event attended by 1500 people, requiring the management of 150 volunteers and 25 vendors over three months. You may have a full piece of paper for this one but try to stick to bullet points. Have you managed people? Created budgets? Learned to use a specific piece of computer software? Written an iPhone application? Become a master communicator on Twitter? We are all continually learning so step back and think about the skills you’ve acquired and how you did it. A friend of mine helped with a lot of auctions over the course of putting four boys through Catholic schools. As the last one was finishing she was approached by a software company who wanted to launch a product for running school auctions. She spent five years helping them develop and launch a product that end users loved because she had inadvertantly learned the business while volunteering.

Part of what you will need to communicate to potential employers in your online bio, cover letter and conversations, is how skills you’ve learned outside of paid employment are applicable in their environment. It may be hard for someone to see how being a volunteer at the local food bank qualifies you to be the office coordinator at the health club. It is up to you to demonstrate that the experience you had scheduling volunteers is the same skill set required to make up a staff rota for the fitness room and the people skills you learned helping those who were going through hard times will make it very easy for you to soothe the ruffled feathers of a member who is dissatisfied with the wait for a treadmill.

As you consider the move back to paid employment, you need to be clear how much time you have available. Assuming you have the financial options open to you, think about whether you want something along the lines of a traditional 40 hours a week in the office, something part-time but structured, or something entirely flexible that allows you to set your own rules. Keep in mind that, unlike volunteer work, you will absolutely need to be there when you say you will so you need to have child care cover in case of illness and those long school holidays. Last year a six month consulting contract came up for strategic planning of a national company that perfectly fit my expertise and background. It was the ideal contract for me. Except it started a week before the summer holidays began, I had no child care cover, vacation plans and three other projects running. Knowing I have a limited amount of time in the day, I take a lot of projects in other time zones so I can work in the evenings. If you need to work a full time job for financial reasons that is what you do. If you have some leeway, think about how much of your family time or your personal time you are willing to commit to an employer.

Using your thoughts about the kinds of work you enjoy, your skills, and your desired outcomes, write a concise and compelling biography. Two paragraphs should be sufficient. This brief summary encapsulates who you are and where you want to go. It can then be the basis of you bio on career related social media sites like LinkedIn and Monster.com or be incorporated into a cover letter. It will also help prepare you for networking with people and talking about yourself in career terms again.

You may want to consider using or at least writing a functional (rather than chronological) resume. These have gone in and out of favor over the last twenty years. As someone re-entering the paid work force, they can be useful as they summarise your skills and experience rather than highlighting blocks of time out of work. Employers know that so you aren’t fooling anyone with this technique but it may help you present yourself in a more positive manner – just be prepared to answer questions about your time out of the paid work force. Even if you don’t use it with potential employers, simply writing one will help drill down further on the skills exercise so that when asked what your skills are you articulate them easily.

Network, network, network. We had to come to it eventually. Pouring through job posting online is only going to get you so far. With a non-traditional career path it is even more important because your resume is less likely to get through the online screening algorithms being used to review applications. Joshua Waldman has some terrific tips on surviving the new job application process. You need to participate online with social media like LinkedIn and Twitter so that you have an online presence. This builds your reputation and can connect you with people who may be able to get you in the door when your resume won’t. Join groups and participate in chats in areas related to your interests. You never know when you’ll stumble over the right person or idea for your next move. More importantly you need to network with the people you know in real life. Tell the people you volunteer with, mother’s you chat with in the park, the guy behind you in line at Starbucks, that you are thinking of making a change. Let them know the kinds of things you are looking at and ask them to keep you in mind if they hear of anything. It may be that they know someone starting a business that needs extra help or a favorite shop they were just in is hiring. You need to put yourself forward and ask for help rather than waiting for a door to open.

Re-entering the workforce isn’t easy but if you take time to consider your strengths and skills, you can make a success of it. Good luck.

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