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Oh, the Places You Can Go: How Volunteering Improves Your Career

May 13, 2021

Volunteering is often viewed as a way to give back, an opportunity to be selfless and a chance to contribute to the greater good.

But beyond what you give as a volunteer, you often get back many rewards. You may not realize it in the moment, but the skills you gain and experiences you have can boost your career in safety, help you make business connections, allow you to practice and hone your leadership skills and impact people.

As you set or update your career goals and look for ways to get ahead, here are five reasons you should consider volunteering with our Society.

1. Expand Your People Skills

Deb Roy, M.P.H., RN, COHN-S, CSP, CIT, FASSP, FAAOHN, got her first taste of volunteering as a student member of the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses (AAOHN).

“There was no internet, so that was really the way to network,” she explains.

After graduating, Roy got involved in the AAOHN chapter in Maine, helping plan conferences and eventually serving two separate terms as president.

“There’s nothing like planning a conference to learn how to build teams and communicate effectively! That experience also showed me I had the skills to plan and prioritize work, and to communicate with diverse audiences,” she says.

As Roy began doing more occupational safety and health (OSH) work and formed her own OSH consulting firm, she realized she wanted to get involved with another organization in a different way.

“That was 1993. I had done chapter-level and regional-level activities with AAOHN, so when I got to ASSP, I decided to get involved in the divisions, which we now call practice specialties,” she explains. She joined the consultants’ group, then began teaching at our annual conference.

She credits these experiences with helping her to learn and practice skills (such as facilitation and relationship building) that have contributed to her successful career in safety.

2. Try New Things

Like Roy, Patrick Wolocko, CSP, CHST, started volunteering in college. While attending Oakland University, he decided to get involved with our student section on campus. His first role was as the section’s vice president of marketing. Then he connected with leaders of the Greater Detroit Chapter.

“The chapter was looking for some volunteers, so I reached out and they invited me to a meeting,” he says. “To this day, I don't know how it happened, but I walked out of the meeting as the professional development chair.”

With those experiences to draw from, Wolocko attended his first Future Safety Leaders Conference. He soon became a member of the committee that plans the event, serving as co-chair in 2019 and 2020.

When Wolocko joined the Emerging Professionals in OSH Common Interest Group, he was immediately asked to be the group’s social media chair, then its content coordinator.

“That was a fun experience because I really didn’t do a whole lot of social media, so there was a lot of learning and a lot of new experiences for me,” he recalls. He later volunteered to be the content coordinator for the Management Practice Specialty.

“At the time, I did not think I was necessarily qualified for these positions. But over time I learned new skills to help me in those roles,” Wolocko says. “Even more important, I gained skills that I’ve used in my career to continue moving up within my company.”

His advice? Get involved, say yes and see what happens.

“It’s been a great journey for me so far and I can't wait to see what’s next.”

3. Accelerate Your Career

When Christine Sullivan, CSP, ARM, graduated with a degree in ergonomics, she wasn’t thinking of safety as a career. Then she took an internship with an insurance company that ultimately hired her after graduation. She started to get more involved with our Society when she moved to Denver and attended a Colorado Chapter meeting.

“I was ‘volun-told’ I should be chapter secretary,” she says of her first volunteer position, which eventually led to serving in all the chapter offices, including as president.

Her Society-level involvement began when she attended her first conference — Safety 2002 in Nashville, Tennessee.

“Opryland is a massive hotel and it’s easy to get lost,” she says. “I was just walking around and ended up at a meeting at 6:30 in the morning with the committee planning the 2003 conference in Denver.”

Sullivan eventually chaired that planning committee before becoming vice president of the Council on Professional Development, then vice president of finance, before being elected to her current role. Her involvement in developing our Society’s courses and conferences was intentional.

“Continuing education is such an important part of what we do,” she says.

From a career standpoint, Sullivan confirms that volunteering has helped her in many ways.

“There are so many people who can be your mentors — people who you can bounce ideas off of, share conversations with and learn from,” she says.

She also learned some important leadership skills along the way.

“If you can lead volunteers, you can lead anybody,” she explains. “I currently lead a global team of risk control professionals for a worldwide insurance company based in Manhattan. There’s a lot of opportunity if you get involved.”

4. Make Key Connections

Joel Haight, Ph.D., P.E., CSP, CIH, hasn’t had a traditional safety career, but his work in higher education and research connects him closely to the OSH profession and our Society.

“I can tell you that this organization has been a home like no other for me,” he says. “The network is important. That’s what I always tell members of the student section at the University of Pittsburgh. Plus, you never know who you’re going to talk to next.”

Linda Tapp, CSP, CPTD, has a great example of that. Early in her safety career, Tapp’s husband was asked to relocate to London for his job. Before the move, she attended the Society’s annual conference in Las Vegas, NV.

“During a poolside networking event one evening, a man came up to me, pointed to my name tag and said, ‘Oh, I grew up in Cherry Hill. Is that diner still there? That’s my favorite cheesecake in the world.’”

The conversation eventually turned to her job.

“I explained that we were moving to London where I didn’t know anyone,” she says.

He handed Tapp his card and told her to send him her resume.

“I looked at the card as he walked away,” she recalls. “I had no idea who he was, but the card showed his name was Tom Cecich and that he was vice president of global operations for GlaxoSmithKline.” [A long-time member and volunteer, Cecich would go on to serve as Society president in 2016. He is an ASSP Fellow and has received numerous industry and Society awards.]

Tapp did send Cecich her resume — along with a cheesecake from that Cherry Hill diner — but didn’t hear anything from him for a while. Then, within a few weeks of arriving in London later that year, she was hired as an OSH consultant for six Glaxo plants.

She and Cecich remain close colleagues, and Tapp knows that poolside conversation was a pivotal moment in her career.

“You don’t know who you’re going to bump into or meet in line or while walking around a networking event,” she says. “It launched my consulting career. I never would have tried consulting unless I ended up in that situation.”

5. Create a Lasting Impact

First impressions are often an important factor when you decide to step outside your comfort zone by meeting new people or joining a new group. The first time Maribeth Anderson, M.P.A., CSP, attended a Greater Chicago Chapter meeting early in her career, she wondered whether she belonged there.

“I stepped in the room and no one looked like me,” she says. “Everybody seemed much older.”

Fortunately, a member immediately approached her, introduced himself and took her around to meet other attendees.

“That welcome was key to me,” she says.

By the end of the meeting, she was the chapter’s newsletter editor, starting a volunteer career that has seen her hold many positions, including as a member of our Board of Directors.

“My experience is also a good reminder to invite and welcome others into our profession and our organization whenever the opportunity presents itself,” Anderson explains. “Helping them feel included is what it’s all about.”

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