THE BLOG
12/05/2014 05:32 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2015

Looking for a Job? Step Away From the Computer and Volunteer

Being unemployed isn't fun.

A few years ago, not long after I finished grad school, I found myself once again looking for a full-time job. Most days, I was in front of a laptop, combing through job ads, typing cover letters furiously and trying hard to network, all while doing my best to make ends meet in a tough economy.

Though my experience was arguably less trying than what the roughly nine million or so unemployed people in America are confronting today, the stark reality of not having a job and needing one was a challenge I won't soon forget. Still, after searching for a while and not seeing the results I wanted, I realized that to find work I'd have to try a new approach.

And that's why I decided to volunteer.

As it happens, December 5, is International Volunteer Day, the day we celebrate the selfless contributions that millions of Americans -- about 62.6 million in 2013 -- make in our communities every day, whether they're serving food at a homeless shelter, caring for a community garden or working to further other causes that inspire them. Even if the rate of volunteerism was at a low point in America last year, it still makes me proud of my country to think that so many of us give so much of our time free of charge.

Full disclosure: these days I work with America's Unofficial Ambassadors (AUA), an organization that sends volunteers abroad to serve with schools and grassroots NGOs in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. I'm obviously a big proponent of volunteer service, but that also means I've seen first-hand how service can transform a person's career prospects and their life.

While there are lots of selfless reasons to serve, the fact remains that being a volunteer can also be a path to finding a job or transforming your personal passions into a career. For jobseekers, the statistics are encouraging. Take these fast facts from the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the federal agency that operates AmeriCorps and, as part of its mission, tracks trends in volunteerism. In a report last year, CNCS found that people who volunteer are up to 27 percent more likely to find a job after being out of work than people who don't. For people who volunteer without a high school diploma, those employment odds are up to 51 percent higher over those who don't. Those odds are even better for jobseekers in rural areas who volunteer. Their likelihood of finding a job increases by 55 percent.

If you're a job seeker and I were to tell you there's a way to boost your chances of finding a job by more than 25 percent, wouldn't you at least consider it?

The case for volunteering your way into a job gets even stronger when you look at what employers say about applicants with volunteer experience on their CVs. A survey of LinkedIn members found that 41 percent of employers consider volunteer work equally as valuable as paid work experience when considering whom to hire and 1 in 5 reported hiring someone specifically because of their volunteer experience. Among employers in the nonprofit sector, meanwhile, a 2012 report from Idealist.org found that 65 percent of them considered volunteer service to be at least somewhat important in evaluating job applicants.

There are lots of reasons employers value applicants who've volunteered. While it demonstrates social concern and compassion for others, it's often a signal to employers that an applicant is passionate about using the skills they possess and eager to gain experience. At the same time, jobseekers themselves often gain the chance to establish a track record through volunteerism in their chosen field and the opportunity to build a larger network of personal contacts that can lead to professional references and, in many cases, a job. At AUA, I've seen returned volunteers go on to professional careers as teachers, international development professionals and even a few who liked service abroad so much that they continued it by applying to join the Peace Corps.

In my case, since I had just completed a Mid-East studies degree, I started serving as a media and outreach volunteer to a human rights organization that advocates for reforms in the region. I wrote press releases, edited op-eds and filmed a series of short videos on rights issues as I continued my job search. It didn't find me a job right away, but it did put me in a position to meet people and build connections that guided my job search. Plus, it was fun. More importantly, it gave me something of value to put my CV for the period in which I was unemployed, something that showed I was passionate about my work.

When the call finally did come for the interview that led me into a new job, I was able to say to my future boss that I was doing more with my time than simply filling out applications and waiting. The response I got for that was noticeably positive. It was so positive, in fact, that I continued volunteering even after I got hired to keep gaining more hands-on experience and learning new skills.

Looking back, if there's one piece of advice I could offer to jobseekers this International Volunteer Day, it's that volunteering can have as much value for the volunteer as it does for the community or organization they serve. If you're looking for a job and you can serve, step away from your laptop, get out into your community and become a volunteer. It'll be an investment, not just in your community or your "good karma," but in your career as well.