Professional Associations: Membership Has Rewards

In a bad economy, college students and recent grads need to try everything they can to land a job or internship. One often-overlooked resource is the world of professional associations.

These organizations exist to support, educate and provide resources for professionals in a particular industry or profession.

Some are really small and others are as huge as corporations. Some are full of young members and others could use some fresh faces. Some are super active and some only meet occasionally.

Do Your Homework

This means you have to do your research (check out the American Society of Association Executives, the professional association for associations) and ask your professors which associations they think are worthwhile.

Note that professional association memberships can be expensive, so always ask for student or young professional rates when you join.

What can a professional association do for you? Here are some suggestions:

"Professionalize" your resume. Membership in a professional association is a seal of approval in many fields. It shows that you understand the importance of professional networking and you're an invested member of the career field you'd like to join.

Membership also allows you to "graduate" from looking like a student on your resume to looking like a professional (think of the different message it sends to list membership in the Undergraduate Human Resources Club at your school versus membership in the Society for Human Resource Management, the leading association in that field).

Make networking easier. It can be weird and scary to reach out to strangers and ask for help with your job search. As a member of a professional association, that difficulty is eased through events where networking is actively encouraged.

Many associations also offer formal mentoring programs, LinkedIn groups, Facebook pages, listservs and job boards to facilitate member networking.

Will established professional association members want to network with students and recent grads? According to Certified Association Executive Matthew D'Uva, the answer is an emphatic yes.

"Fellow association members are usually happy to help students in their ranks," says D'Uva, who is president of SOCAP (Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals) International. "I encourage proactivity. If you know what you want to do, call the organization and say, 'I've just joined and I'd like to find a mentor or volunteer to serve on a committee.' Lots of organizations also have membership directories.

"If you use the directory to reach out to someone, identify yourself as a fellow member and have clear questions," D'Uva continued. "I would not directly job hunt that way, but if you legitimately want to learn more about the profession and do informational interviews, people will be happy to offer some advice. Use the organization name as a way to open a door."

Increase industry knowledge. One of my biggest recommendations to job seekers is to learn as much as you can about the industries and companies you want to join. Professional associations can help you do this.

They provide access to exclusive industry publications, databases of company information, news about legislative issues affecting the field and salary studies that help you discover the compensation and benefits you might expect from certain jobs. When you join an association, be sure to subscribe to all of its online and offline publications and news alerts to be fully informed.

If you're not yet sure what industry or profession you want to join, you can still get value from association membership. Try joining (or just reading the websites of) a few organizations in fields that interest you. This will give you a chance to learn more about the field, attend a few events, meet some people and discover if that particular industry might be a good choice for you.

Provide relocation opportunities. According to D'Uva, another value of associations is the exposure to people beyond your local area. "We have members who represent companies from across the country and around the world," he says. "This allows you to develop networks for wherever you might be interested in moving."

Offer job opportunities in the association world. Don't forget about opportunities to work for a professional association—they are a big employer segment in every state across the country.

Association management is "a very underreported profession," says D'Uva, who recommends the field to recent college grads. "I think it's a really great place for someone just out of college. You're not pigeonholed to do one thing. A lot of associations are run by relatively small staffs, so as an entry-level person you have the opportunity to be exposed to a wide variety of tasks, and your responsibilities can grow exponentially.

"You are involved in discussions with an industry's thought leaders and you are the person that is working to execute and put into reality the aspirations of that group. It is a very rich and rewarding career."

To learn more about professional associations and jobs in the association world, check out