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"Test the Waters" as a Volunteer

By Jason Reid

The term "testing the waters" comes from the habit of recreational swimmers of dipping their foot into a lake or pool to gauge the water's temperature before diving in.

This ensures the swimmer won't endure a shock by throwing themselves into water that is colder than they're prepared for.

Avoid the Sink-or-Swim Situation

In the same way swimmers test the waters before jumping into the pool, some individuals with chronic health conditions may feel the need to test the waters of employment before they dive right in to a new job or career. This ensures they're not shocked or overwhelmed by the demands of a regular job.

These type of people include:

  • Students with chronic health conditions who are looking for their first job.
  • Individuals who have been sick for a long period due to a chronic illness flare-up, but who are now entering a remission phase.
  • Individuals who have been forced to leave jobs involving physical labor due to illness or injury.
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Often, people with chronic health conditions are unsure of how their unpredictable illness will affect their ability to work a regular job. They may be uncertain about the effects that chronic pain or fatigue will have on their performance, or how many hours they can comfortably work without it impacting negatively on their health or job.

One low-risk, high-benefit way of testing the employment waters is seeking out volunteer opportunities. Non-profit organizations in particular use volunteer workers for variety of positions at various skill levels.

While volunteer jobs are by their nature unpaid, they are often easier to find and sometimes less stressful than a paid job. Volunteer positions may also be more flexible in terms of time commitments.

Benefits of Volunteering:

1. Gaining experience and developing skills

Developing skills and gaining experience are wonderful benefits that come with a volunteer position. In order to keep your energy level up, it is important to find a job that you have an interest in learning or pursuing. Working for a cause that you are passionate about will also make it easier to find the energy you need.

Organizations often have volunteer positions in areas such as fundraising, marketing, accounting, and public relations. If you have interest in these types of jobs, this may be an ideal opportunity for you to gain experience. If you already have expertise in these areas, a volunteer job can allow you to keep your skills and resume up-to-date.

If you spend enough time in the organization you may be asked to sit on a board of directors where you can learn basic meeting procedures and rules of order.

2. Gathering information about yourself.

One of the main reasons for "testing the waters" is to determine how much you can handle. The information you learn about yourself will be crucial in eventually finding the right fit with a paid employer. For instance, some of my clients learn that they handle afternoon or evening work schedules better than those which start early in the morning. Others find that leading a team is more energizing than they originally thought. You can take what you have learned about yourself and better identify paying jobs that are right for you.

3.  Increasing stamina.

If your illness has kept you off your feet for any length of time you may need to build some stamina. Just because you're feeling weak and lethargic now doesn't mean your energy level will never improve. You may want to start off slow (volunteering a couple days a month for instance) and gradually build your workload as you gain more strength.

4. Building confidence.

As you build stamina and successfully complete projects, you will find your confidence rises, and the uncertainty and fear you may have felt before the volunteer job will lessen. Confidence in your abilities will pay off during the interview process and make the experience of finding paid employment more positive and exciting.

5. Meeting the right people - networking.

Entrepreneurs and sales-people know that the key to success is meeting the right people. This is often the key to landing the right job as well.

By taking a volunteer position, you increase your circle of influence. Many of your co-volunteers may have other jobs or even run businesses when they're not volunteering.

Bottom Line

Organizations prefer to work with people they know - or at least those who come recommended by a good employee. By demonstrating your abilities to others and getting to know them, you increase your chances of both finding, and getting, the type of paid employment you are looking for.

More About Volunteering


About the author...

Jason Reid runs Sick with Success®, an organization committed to helping people with chronic illness, and their employers, become more productive. Jason's success as both a manager and a person with chronic illness gives him a unique perspective on how chronic health conditions affect organizations and their people. An award-winning former television news director, Jason is also a professionally trained coach and speaker. Jason is the author of Thriving in the Age of Chronic Illness - his new book, which is a guide for both employees with chronic health conditions and their managers. Follow Jason at SickWithSuccess.com.


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