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How to get experience

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It’s the classic job-hunter’s dilemma — to get a job you need experience, but to get experience you need a job.

Experience may not be a problem if you’re looking for a job in a field you’ve been working in for a while. But what if you want to break into a new career that you have never worked in?

If you don’t currently have experience, you might be feeling discouraged about the possibility of breaking into your dream career. The good news is that people break into new careers every day.

As we discussed in a previous column, unlike earlier generations where most people stuck with the same career whether they loved it or hated it, the vast majority of today’s workers will change jobs and careers multiple times.

In a story in Harvard Magazine, Michael Shinagel, Dean of continuing education for Harvard, said “the national average is that people pursue six different careers over their lifetimes.” Obviously, each new career requires learning how to do a new job.

If you’re looking for a job in a field that has a shortage of skilled workers, you may be able to find an employer willing to give you on the job training. However, in many companies employees are expected to “hit the ground running.” In other words, the employer wants to hire people who already know how to do the job.

One of the best ways to get experience and learn how to do a job is by volunteering. Contact your local volunteer centre which can direct you to many opportunities. For example, at the Volunteer Centre of Calgary website, you can browse a list of more than 1,000 volunteer opportunities. You’ll have the chance to do good for the community while building your resume.

If you are currently employed, you may also be able to volunteer at work. If you’ve noticed someone doing a fun job in your company — whether it’s planning events, editing the newsletter, leading training programs, designing the website, working in public relations, or anything else fabulous — and wondered “how can I get a job like that?” offer to help the department you want experience with.

Although not everyone will accept an offer of help (some people are territorial, afraid of training someone who might take over their job, don’t want to share work they enjoy, or simply don’t need help), you might be surprised at how many people will jump at the opportunity for assistance.

As a result of downsizings, many departments are short-staffed. With pressure to increase sales, improve service, and expand into new markets, many can use a hand. Here are a few things to keep in mind when volunteering to help at work:

Speak to the right person. In some cases it will be the head of the department. In other cases it will be someone who is currently doing a particular task, such as training or event planning.
Unless you are able to persuade your employer to transfer you to that department, you will still be expected to do your regular job. In some cases that may mean working for the other department on your own time.
If you are willing to file, photocopy, make coffee, or do whatever is needed, say so. There are plenty of people who want to do fun tasks, making it tough for someone without experience to break in. You will have very little competition if you offer to do the work others are not willing to do.
Consider it “a foot in the door”. Show that you have a positive attitude and are willing to do what it takes to get the job done. If you provide excellent value to the department, you could be offered a job doing what you want.

If you don’t break into a dream job at your own company, at least you will have practical experience to help you land your dream job somewhere else.

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