We live in a culture where people often ask what you do and where you work. When you're "between jobs" -- code for "unemployed" -- those simple, innocent questions can make you cringe.
One way to feel better about accounting for your time is to consider an adult internship, also called an externship.
These are unpaid part-time positions to get a foot in the door in the business or industry of your choice. You can gain a new skill or enhance existing ones. This is also a chance to close a gap in unemployment by providing valuable experience for your resume. In addition to seeing firsthand the highs and lows of a particular line of work, you may build contacts and develop relationships that will prove valuable when you ultimately seek a paid position.
Word play. In the most traditional sense, volunteering benefits your heart by giving your time and talent to a charitable organization without getting anything other than personal satisfaction in return.
An internship or externship (the words are often used interchangeably) focuses on giving your time and talent in a business environment to benefit your career. An intern is usually still in college and works (with or without pay) to gain real-world experience. An externship is the same thing but for someone who's no longer in school.
Consider your targets. Start by making a list of at least 10 businesses that you'd like to approach about an externship. Small- and medium-sized businesses are easier to approach than a global giant, so if speed is important to you, avoid a Fortune 500 company. Target employers in industries that appeal most to you, based on your career goals.
Just as you're likely applying to several jobs at any one time, you should pitch an externship to multiple employers at once, too. Use your online and office networks to find prospective employers. Since you don't know who'll accept your proposal, you must have lots of feelers out there.
Prepare a formal pitch. If you're dealing directly with a decision-maker at a small company, it may be OK to make your pitch verbally. Ideally, however, you should spell it all out in writing.
When proposing an externship, address the work you want to perform, the skills you want to gain, and the proposed length of the assignment -- right down to the hours per week and the weeks or months you're willing to commit. You must also indicate that you understand there is no promise of a job when the externship is done. This lets the employer off the hook because the law prohibits you from working for free, unless it's clearly spelled out that this opportunity is more for your gain than for the employer's. In most cases, at the end of your stint, you'll take away lasting skills and experience that far outweigh an employer's temporary use of your time.
Compensation. Some employers provide interns/externs with an hourly rate that's not much more than minimum wage. You can also propose a stipend to cover reimbursable expenses, such as travel and lunch. Some companies will insist that an intern receive college credit for their services -- credit that the intern will pay for him/herself. This doesn't doom an extern, however; many community colleges will offer internship credits that you can apply toward a degree or just pay for.
Unemployment benefits. We talked to the unemployment insurance offices in New York and Massachusetts. In both states, you can continue to collect unemployment benefits while externing or interning (assuming it's unpaid) because that counts toward the mandatory provision that you are actively looking for work.
However, it's important that there is no promise of a job at the end of the externship because that would turn your externship into a trainee or temp position, and trainees and temps must be paid and can't collect unemployment at the same time. Rules vary nationwide, so check directly with your state before assuming the laws in your area.