I recently had a childhood friend make a career change in her late thirties: she went back to school full-time, investing significant time, effort and money to turn her nursing dream into reality. She recently graduated and was so very proud to have those two new initials after her name – R.N.

Everyone was so happy for her, congratulating her on her achievement. Her Facebook page was blowing up with a flurry of happy activity and optimism for her future.

Then reality set in.

While nurses are in great shortage everywhere, it seems the industry is only really interested in experienced RNs and new grads need not apply. Ouch! The job search has been pretty brutal and she’s not alone - 43% of newly licensed RNs still do not have jobs within 18 months after graduation.  It’s the old cliché: You must have experience to get the job yet you must have a job to get experience. What a vicious cycle!  (And it certainly isn’t just limited to the nursing industry).

How can you break it?

My advice to my friend? Find the very best hospital you can and volunteer your way to your next position. (This advice also applies to any other new grad, career changer, pink slip recipient or jobseeker out there who needs to bridge a gap in employment).

Why volunteer?

1. It puts work experience on your resume

Duh! This is obviously the most important strategy in your job search right now, especially if it’s the only thing keeping you from landing that dream job. Even if it’s just a few hours a week, your resume will now say “XYZ Company (or XYZ Hospital), January 2013 – present” instead of having a big gap. Way, way, way better than having no current employer on your resume, which is an automatic deal-breaker for many recruiters. (Hey, I’m just the messenger here!) :) Added bonus? You will probably learn a thing or two (or twenty!), which builds your resume and makes you that much more marketable to employers.

2. It enables you to line up solid references in your field of choice

If/when you need someone to vouch for your skills in this new industry, volunteering will provide you with experienced people who have seen you in action and can recommend you for that job. Think about it… most new grads look exactly alike on paper. Your recommendations and references could be just the thing that separates you from the rest (side note: make sure to add these recommendations to your LinkedIn profile while you’re at it).

3. It allows you to build your network

We’ve all heard it before: it’s not what you know, it’s WHO you know. In a bad economy / job market, those words were never more true. People are hiring employee referrals because these referrals are a known quantity and there’s much less risk. If you don’t know many people in your field, then you are at a distinct disadvantage. Volunteering allows you to grow your network (in real life AND on LinkedIn) and you can now leverage those connections to network, find out about new positions and be at the forefront of people’s minds if/when they learn of a new opening. Don’t be afraid to get the word out that you’re actively looking for that foot-in-the-door position.

4. It shows your passion for what you want to do

“I love nursing (or whatever it is that YOU do) so much that I would do it even if they didn’t pay me.” Even if that’s not EXACTLY true, this is the message that volunteering conveys. How wonderful is that? You are suddenly much more attractive to future employers because they want those top performers who love what they do, not the employees who are just phoning it in.

5. It keeps you busy and keeps your spirits up

There’s nothing worse during a job search than getting up every morning with no where to go. You lounge around in your pj’s, mope about the horrible situation, pop online to try to find a job, end up getting discouraged and it’s just not good for your self-esteem or mental outlook. How are you going to be able to sell yourself to employers if you aren’t in a good place? Volunteering gets you out of the house, doing the work you want to do and staying busy. You will keep your batteries recharged and, let’s face it, volunteering just feels good. Give and get back, I always say!

6. It puts you at the top of the list if a job becomes available

Picture it: there you are, volunteering at that company / hospital and suddenly an opening becomes available. Do you really think they’ll just go with an unknown person over you? Assuming you fit the requirements for the role, the odds are pretty good that you’ll be hired since you’re right there in front of them and have already proven your skills, your dedication and your passion for the role. It’s also a great way for them to say “thank you” for your time and effort! Hey, they might even CREATE a job for you that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. Knock their socks off and they’ll want to keep you!

Have you ever volunteered to change careers or land your next position? Any tips for us? Tell us about it!  Oh, and if anyone in the Baltimore / Washington DC area needs a dedicated, passionate (albeit inexperienced) RN to join their team, hit me up! I know a great one:)

Stacy Donovan Zapar

Stacy Donovan Zapar is a 15-year recruiting veteran and CEO of Tenfold Social Training, a training / consulting company for recruiters and hiring teams. She is also the Most Connected Woman on LinkedIn with more than 36,000 first-level connections. She served as Technical Editor for Wiley’s LinkedIn Marketing: An Hour a Day and is a regularly-featured contributor on The Undercover Recruiter. Feel free to follow Stacy on Twitter @StacyZapar and connect with her on LinkedIn.