In October 2013, I wrote an article entitled, “The first thing to do when you become unemployed.” To the surprise of many readers (judging by a rash of emails), that first thing was not to apply for unemployment, start your job search, call everyone in your network, hire a coach, or join more networking groups.
That first thing was – and still is – to volunteer. Any of those other things can be a good second thing to do, but not the first thing. It’s volunteering.
Now the question is: Why? Well, there were – and still are – a number of reasons, which I will briefly review in a moment, but one of those reasons is why I’m bringing it up again. Here’s what I said back then.
Why make the decision to volunteer before any others? If for no other reason than volunteering is something we should all be doing as an integral part of our lives anyway, it’s a positive step. And starting off your unemployed stint positively makes all the difference in the world. You immediately feel better about yourself, immediately take on a cause, immediately have another reason to get up in the morning, immediately set new goals, and immediately do some good in the world. The importance of this positive energy is impossible to quantify but also impossible to ignore.
Now, lest you think this is nothing but do-good altruism, there are personal gains to be made, for sure. By doing skills-based volunteering (marketing, social media, accounting, and so forth), you’ll keep your skills sharp and up to date. Work is work and experience is experience, whether paid or not. Also you’ll put yourself in a position to network with people who can open doors. Further, it puts you in a much more constructive state of mind when conducting your search. You make better decisions.
Anecdotally, I can tell you that people who volunteered not only had much more positive attitudes about others and themselves, they tended to be the ones who ultimately got better jobs and got them sooner than the ones who didn’t. Why? It should be self-evident, but – among other things – they had great answers when asked in interviews about what they had been doing since becoming unemployed. And that’s why I’m writing today.
Hindsight, we all know, is 20-20, and if you didn’t see it ahead of time, let me reflect. Now that the awful Great Recession is history and all the jobs lost have been recreated, and now that the job market is starting to make some sense after all this, it’s interesting to see how people fared. Yes, there are a lot of people who went through long unemployment periods who now have re-entered the workforce, but there are still many who have not. And while I didn’t do a scientific poll or survey, I can tell you – without the hint of reservation – that many of them share one thing in common: when asked what they were doing in their six-month, one-year, two-year, or longer unemployment period, they didn’t have a good answer. The honest answer would have to be “nothing” but of course no one says that. The ensuing calisthenics are so patently and blatantly untrue and convoluted (translate: BS) that these job seekers never get any further in the process. Employers have really sharp BS detectors, y’know?
On the other hand, job seekers who can truthfully say that they volunteered – whether a day a week or more – providing their professional expertise to a deserving organization, have a much better story to tell. They have better answers to those questions. Further, candidates who can also say they enrolled in a college or community college course to bolster their computer skills, learn about sustainability (think “green”), or get a leg up on a specialty in their field (not just accounting but forensic accounting, not just marketing but social media marketing), have really compelling stories. In the absence of data, take my word for this anyway. I can’t count how many examples I’ve seen.
Simply, those who volunteered, stayed active, and bettered themselves are – in almost every case – doing quite well, thank you very much. Those who didn’t…not so much.
The sum and substance of this is evident. First, volunteer because good human beings do that. But that’s nothing new. Beyond that, though, if you need any justification for doing it for personal gain (and you should be entitled to a little of that), then here it is. You will be a much stronger candidate and you stay in the running far longer – all the way to the finish line.
So when I talk to job seekers – in my office on a one-on-one basis or at public gatherings like my workshops, seminars, and such – and I ask them what they’ve been doing since their last job (no matter how long ago that was), and they don’t have a good answer, namely volunteering, I ask as bluntly as I can, “You didn’t? You should have. Why didn’t you?
Lesson learned and applied: the first thing you do when you’re unemployed is to volunteer. If I see you soon and you can’t tell me you’ve done it, I will ask again: Why didn’t you?