Sunday, January 3, 2010

How to leverage part time and volunteer work

Holiday seasons are terrific for many reasons. None the least is the opportunity to catch up with friends and family as well as the opportunity to relax. For many people, especially students, holiday season means that you have the chance to earn some money. If you aren’t taking extra classes over your break, then the opportunity to work and earn some extra dollars is huge. Many students relish in the opportunity to work not only because of the money but because of the social side of work life too, depending of course on the industry that you are working in.

Unfortunately, many students don’t take full advantage of their holiday work. Oh, by the way, when I say work, I also mean volunteer work. Of course this means that no extra money will be earnt, but something far more valuable than money (unless you are starving!) can be learnt! Yes, that’s right, learnt!

Too often I hear students say that they are ‘just a check-out chick’, or “I just work at a cafe”, or “I just provide meals to homeless people.”. There is no such thing as “Just a part time job”! Not if you are prepared to consider the employability skills that you are developing while doing your work. Below is a short list of ten skills that part time / volunteer work develops:

1. Communication skills
2. Problem solving skills
3. Initiative
4. Teamwork
5. Using various forms of technology
6. Planning and organising skills
7. Service excellence skills
8. Leadership skills
9. Learning skills
10. Self management skills

Let’s look briefly at some examples of how you might develop these skills in practice:

1. Communication skills
If you have to communicate with your boss, other team members and/or the general public, then you have the opportunity to develop communication skills. It doesn’t matter whether the predominant form of communication is via a telephone (as in a contact centre) or face to face (as in a cafe). You still have the opportunity to test whether you are communicating effectively. Here’s a tip – good communicators are good listeners, which also means that you are good at asking questions. So, develop your questioning skills and your communication skills will skyrocket!

2. Problem solving skills
Problems occur all the time. In every job. A computer won’t work. The electric doors are stuck shut. Another staff member didn’t turn up for their shift. The delivery that was meant to come in hasn’t arrived yet and customers are waiting for their orders. The list goes on. Each of these examples is a wonderful opportunity for you to consciously practice your problem solving skills. Not only that, you have a wonderful opportunity to create a bank of stories about how you solve problems. Can you imagine any of your future employers not wanting a problem solver? Neither can I!

3. Initiative skills
Showing initiative is when you do something that is helpful without having been asked to do it. Every time a problem arises at work you have an opportunity to show initiative. Every time you see that something could go wrong (like someone slipping on a banana peel) and you take action to stop that from happening (like picking up the banana peel) you are showing initiative. Opportunities to demonstrate initiative are everywhere. Keep your eye out for them and grasp them with both hands when they pop up. They also create great stories that can be used in interviews.

4. Teamwork
There is hardly a job that exists that does not involve teamwork. Even if you work alone, you are probably still part of a team. A night shift worker at a convenience store is part of a team with their manager and other staff, even if they rarely see each other. How? What is your response when another team member rings you and asks you to cover their shift? One of the reasons why you might say yes is because you are in a team and when you are in a team sometimes you have to cover for each other. Imagine the interview when you are asked about your experience of working in teams. It may be your stories that relate to covering for teammates (notice the deliberate use of language!) that you use to answer such a question. The beauty is that your answer would be both true and genuine. Perfect!

5. Using technology
Technology is everywhere, but it isn’t just using electronic devices such as computers, scanners, point-of-sale and other devices. It can be writing on whiteboards, driving forklifts (providing you have a license) and whatever else you have to use to do your job. You may be a volunteer who plants trees along freeways or in parks. The shovels, picks and other tools that you use are all forms of technology. The purpose of having a range of stories about your capacity to use different types of technology is to demonstrate that you are a fast learner and can quickly adapt to a range of technologies. Most students don’t even think about these things as being relevant to their future. But, they are!

6. Planning and organising skills
In whatever work you are doing be on time. Full stop. Employers like it and they expect it. Full stop. Practice it and practice it now. Full stop. Get it?

7. Leadership skills
For those of you who have responsibility for a team or other staff, then you have the opportunity to develop your leadership skills. How do you treat the people who you lead? What are your mental models about leadership? How are your personal values reflected in how you treat the people you are leading? Conscious thought about these questions can create wonderful leadership experiences for you as well as the opportunity to make relatively ‘safe’ mistakes. Think about your personal theory about formal leadership. Try it out. See if it works. Most of all, learn how to lead by doing it when the opportunity arises.

8. Learning skills
Part time and volunteer work always involves learning some of the following:
• a new set of technical skills
• policies and procedures
• cash management processes
• customer service procedures
• people’s names
• how to work in a team
• how to communicate the ‘company way’ (e.g. contact centres often have their ‘formula’ that you are expected to follow)
• how to make food and drinks (e.g. cafes and fast food outlets)

This list could go on and on but I think you get the picture. The point is, notice what you have to learn to do your job. Imagine if you were ever asked (in an interview), “How do you learn outside of university?”. You’ll have a mountain of examples from which to draw your answer!

9. Service excellence skills
No job is worth its salt if you aren’t able to practice developing your service excellence skills. Quite simply service excellence is like oxygen. While we don’t exist for it, we can’t live without it. It is a basic requirement for any job. So, you must understand it and consciously practice it. The simplest and best practice to adopt is, “Everyone is my customer; my boss, my colleagues and my customers” (and if you don’t have ‘customers’ just insert whatever word works for you). If you wouldn’t choose to be a customer of yourself, then you need to improve whatever it is that you are doing. It’s a smart practice to develop this skill because while it is like oxygen it is surprising just how many people are ‘suffocating’ themselves (in a career sense!) because they haven’t developed it.

10. Self management skills
In order to consciously practice the above skills you have to practice self-management skills. For example, you will have all had a ‘first day on the job’ experience. How did you handle it? What happened? How did you overcome any ‘bad’ experiences? A ‘first day on the job’ can also mean performing a new role at work. Often these types of days require a significant amount of positive self-talk, time management, problem solving and communication skills. Self-management is, in many ways, a reflection of all the skills above. Oh, by the way, self-management skills in this context can also considered self-leadership skills. So, if you don’t have a job where you formally ‘lead’ other people, your self-management skills can provide examples of self-leadership, which is critical for building the capacity to lead others.

Part time and volunteer work are goldfields as far as developing your employability skills are concerned. However, just like walking through a goldfield and not stopping to ‘mine for gold’ will produce nothing of any great value, not consciously developing your employability skills while working part time or volunteering is crazy! Don’t be crazy. Take full advantage of your opportunities. The gold in this sense will come in the future when you get the job that you really want. So, enjoy your holiday season and enjoy developing yourself even more!

Please feel free to make a comment or to ask a question about this article.

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