This question is apt to be asked when you've been out of work a few months. And that is the case for many people these days.
While it stinks to not have a job, what an amazing opportunity you have to learn some new things, get into the emerging trends and technology in your field, and build your network! Here are some ways you can keep up and expand your skills during your job search:
1) Use the vast resources of the internet and world-wide web.
Choose a search engine and plug in the name of your field or job or area of interest. Click on a website or news article. Read it. Follow links from that site to the next place. It's like blazing your own trail, following your interest to see what comes up. You may even discover a new area for your job search. Or you'll discover a person at a company you identified as of great interest, and now you have a potential point of contact via LinkedIn.
Look for news about companies and industries you have targeted in your job search. If you know people at those companies, send them e-mails or handwritten notes (preferable) letting them know you noticed them, or saw this article that might be of interest. It's a way to stay in touch and remind them that you are still out there.
2) Find a volunteer opportunity suited to your skills and interests.
There are traditional volunteer opportunities at non-profits, accessed through VolunteerMatch.com, New York Cares and similar Cares organizations in other cities, and by contacting the volunteer office at your charity of choice. Those opportunities may or may not be specifically in your skill area, and some charities are better able to use volunteers than others. Whatever you do, you will be keeping occupied, making connections with other volunteers and with the non-profit's staff, and making a real contribution to a cause. Substantive volunteer work can go on your resume.
Other more traditional volunteer opportunities include serving on your co-op board, organizing a block party, serving on a committee for your town or place of worship, tutoring a child, and serving on the benefit committee for a fundraising event.
More substantive volunteer assignments are available through the National Executive Service Corps and Taproot Foundation. Both treat you like a consultant, assigning you to a non-profit for a specific project and period of time. You apply and go through an interview process. This is akin to getting a job, and is very valuable resume experience.
3) Reach out in your network to help people with their work projects, pro bono.
This kind of work is great because you can get to know a new field and stretch your mind. It's consulting work, so you can put it on your resume as experience.
I did several research projects while I was in limbo after my last full-time job, where I compiled, condensed and wrote reports on topic ranging from re-engaging out-of-school youth in education and workforce development to terrorist incidents in Arab countries.
There are other things you can do more suited to your experience and background - building a friend's website, writing copy for a local event, helping a friend get her artwork into galleries. One man I know offered to volunteer at a conference he wanted to attend but couldn't afford; by handling registration and guiding people throughout the conference, he was able to attend many sessions and to make valuable connections that he is leveraging now for a potential business start-up.
4) Use social media.
Blogging is a great way to keep up with your field. You can start your own blog and use it as a platform to explore issues related to your occupation and industry. Your blog also is the launching pad for going to other people's blogs in your field and commenting intelligently and pithily on their posts. That's the way to get your blog noticed and start to build a community in your field. Who knows what kind of job opportunities might come through that?
Twitter and LinkedIn are two main social media outlets that allow you to connect with people in your industry and field. For one thing, jobs are posted on both sites. Twitter has many job posters, job search groups, and job/career coaches and advisors. You can get lots of expert help with your job search. LinkedIn has job listings, some of which are exclusive to LinkedIn and its users. You can easily see whether you have 1st, 2nd or 3rd degree connections to people at companies that post jobs there.
It's easy to expand your network and knowledge through Twitter. Through Twitter's search function, you can find people who tweet on topics near to your heart and mind, follow them, and hopefully they will follow you back. By responding nicely or with humor to someone's tweets, you can build a nice casual relationship. Retweeting someone's tweets is a terrific way to build relationship, for retweets are a great mechanism for someone to get more followers. If I tweet something and you retweet it to all of your followers, some of them are likely to follow me, too. When you have nice relationships, all sorts of things become possible. I've met people for lunch, had Skype phone calls, raised money for a non-profit, become a Twitter Advice Project Career Expert, and generally created a wonderful "office water cooler" atmosphere.
5) Take classes on-line, at a local community or 4 year college, or adult learning program. Or teach.
There are many on-line sources of free classes and webinars, such as iVillage, Microsoft, HR.com, and probably sites in every field. Simply enter "free classes [field]" and something will pop up. Local colleges usually let you audit a class for a small fee. There also are many adult education classes that cover topics relevant to many professionals. Libraries often have seminars or workshops that are free.
Consider teaching a class in your community. It's definitely a way to keep your skills honed because you have to know more than your students. Even if you have only three or four people show up, that's enough of a group to make it worth your while to share what you know. The exercise of putting together a curriculum is great for focusing your mind. You can talk to your local library about putting something together for them; they often are looking for programming to offer the community.
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