We in IT are at war with ourselves. You’ve read about it on TechRepublic and in a thousand other places on the Web. It’s getting ugly out there.

People who hire IT professionals must decide between hiring a “paper MCSE” with no experience and a higher-priced seasoned veteran. The veterans think the newcomers are dragging salaries down. The newcomers are frustrated because they can’t get an IT job without experience. And they can’t get experience unless they get a job in IT.

At the risk of oversimplifying the issue, the IT industry is still young—we’re experiencing growing pains. I’ve been in the business for a while, and I have a suggestion for the newcomers: Volunteer.

Find a need, fill the need, and put it on your resume
Here’s the lesson every apprentice bricklayer, every musician, every actor, and every radio disc jockey knows well: You have to do a lot of work for nothing or next-to-nothing before you can start making the big bucks. You have to pay your dues and earn respect. It don’t come easy.

So it is with people who are trying to break into the IT industry. You’re not going to be hired at $100K per year just because you completed an eight-week boot camp and got an XYZ certification.

When you interview for an IT job, you’ll encounter questions like these:

  • Have you ever built a network?
  • Can you install a network printer?
  • Have you ever devised a strategy for backing up corporate data?
  • Have you ever managed a budget?

If you don’t have that kind of experience, you’re not going to get hired. Yet if you don’t get hired, you won’t get the experience, right?

Wrong. Here’s what you do. Look in the newspaper under “volunteers needed.” Contact the chamber of commerce and get a list of nonprofit agencies. Find a school that needs IT help. Volunteer to build a network for them. Install a printer for them. Troubleshoot for them. Do some training for them.

There are many reasons why this approach will help you.

  • You’ll get your hands dirty in the “real world,” applying what you’ve learned in the classroom or in the certification boot camp.
  • You’ll be able to look an interviewer in the eye and say, “Yes, I have built a network.”
  • You might get a tax break. Even though you’re volunteering your services, make sure you submit invoices to the agencies. Bill them for your time at $75 an hour (or whatever the going rate is in your area). Then zero out the bottom line of the invoice. Depending on your situation, you might be able to deduct some or all of the billable amount on your taxes because you donated your time.

You’ll feel good!
When your company buys presents for a needy family at Christmas, you feel good if you donate a few bucks or help with the shopping or wrapping. But you don’t see the smiles on the faces of those folks.

If you volunteer your IT skills, you’ll be working side-by-side with people who are dedicated to a cause—nonprofit agencies don’t pay a whole lot of money. They desperately need IT help, but many simply don’t have the funds to buy backup tapes, let alone hire a high-priced consultant.

The most important mission in the lives of those employees is helping the people whom the agency serves. When you volunteer, you’ll become part of their family. You’ll feel better about yourself because you’ll be making a difference.

Ask for referrals
Guess what else? Most of those nonprofit agencies are run by people who are well connected in the community. If you do a good job for them, they’ll be more inclined to recommend you to paying customers. Do a good job, and the word will get out. You could grow a successful consulting business.
One of my colleagues here at TechRepublic is affiliated with a local not-for-profit agency whose Windows NT 4.0 network was being maintained by the chief accountant. The agency relied on volunteer electricians to run the cables. They’re using antiquated PCs that were donated years ago, and they have no budget for a full-time IT manager. So several TechRepublic employees have been volunteering a few hours a week to do things like troubleshoot connectivity problems, add network printers, repair broken PCs, and implement backup procedures. If you’re looking for a way to add “real” IT experience to your resume, find yourself an agency that needs help, and dig in. You’ll be glad you did. If you’d like to comment on this article or share your volunteer experience, please post a comment below.