April 1, 1999

Learn by joining professional organization

Two years ago I found myself tossed into the simmering stew of unemployed journalists for the third time in two years. This, plus the fact the job market overflowed with young piranhas and old crocodiles in the same trade, told me it was time to make a career change. Obviously I needed a new approach.

During the ritualistic consultation with my unemployment counselor, I was convinced to try technical writing. Reluctantly, I called Richard Kersch, the Boulder branch manager for Southeastern Computer Consultants Inc., a private consulting firm contracted by Lockheed Martin Mission Systems in Boulder.

Kersch told me I needed experience with online writing tools and current software before he’d consider me for a junior technical writing job. All was not lost, he said, because most of what I needed to know about technical writing I could learn by joining a good trade organization.

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In search of help, I attended a few free meetings of the Society for Technical Communications, but I decided to join the Boulder Writers Alliance because of its proximity to me.

I’ve been asked how joining a professional association was helpful, and I tell people it’s all in the way you network. By networking at BWA meetings, I finally was taken serious and got the kind of mentoring I was looking for from several of its members.

“Networking and learning how to network with others in your field is the top benefit (of joining trade organizations),” says BWA President Sue Anderson.

The BWA, a group of 150 and growing, is one of several professional trade organizations in the Front Range area. Most offer services to paying members, such as a mailing list, a newsletter, a printed directory of members, workshops, networking events, Web sites with job boards, and committee and volunteer opportunities.

The BWA hosts a showcase event for members and non-members to exhibit writing samples and online technical publications for local business managers on the lookout for new talent.

“Volunteering for a professional organization develops skills because you work with experienced professionals who are willing to train you (for free),” Anderson said. “It’s like a modern-day apprenticeship; an opportunity to gain experience and exposure.”

One of the most often discussed topics among trade association members is job openings. Many of these job leads never get posted on the Internet or into newspaper classifieds, because there’s no need.

“(I landed) my current job because of some contacts I made at STC,´ said Jay Mead, current president of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Society for Technical Communications.

The Rocky Mountain group is the second fastest-growing STC chapter in the nation with an estimated 650 members, second only to Silicon Valley’s chapter. To be more accessible to Northern Colorado members, about one-third of STC’s meetings are held at Storage Technology Inc. in Louisville.

Holding board positions at trade organization is another way to grow professionally.

“We also have committees where we match young people with those with more experienced skills,´ said Mead of STC’s mentoring opportunities.

Those who aren’t sure about joining a group should think about how the dues will impact their wallet, says Debra Jason, the president of the Rocky Mountain Direct Marketing Association.

“I tell them to look at their budget, then look at a couple of trade organizations,´ said Jason, who also owns her own copy writing business called The Write Direction. Jason believes it’s important for each person to find the organization that is tailored to their needs.

“What is of real value is when you join, and you get involved with a committee or the logistics involved (of operating the association),” she said.

RMDMA has more than 600 members representing industry users and vendors, as well as corporate and independent members. Once a year the RMDMA holds DM Days, an event that features distinguished direct marketing experts.

For those only interested in joining a professional association because of the status it carries with it, Jason warns, “It adds some credibility to what you do, but not as much as what you put into it.”

Despite some employers not recognizing the value of their employees joining a professional organization, it is always easy to relate to them how these activities are beneficial. For starters, “it’s a terrific confidence builder,” says Terri Belver, president of the Denver Advertising Federation. The DAF, numbering more than 900 strong, has several events that aspiring advertisers can attend for pointers on closing deals and making sales. One recent seminar included this powerful trailer in its description of what attendees would learn: “… bleeding-edge technology, negotiating perception, (and) mothering the account …”

If that weren’t enough, the DAF holds semi-monthly luncheons where legends like Ted Turner, Andy Berlin, Jeffrey Goodby and Charlotte Beers appear as keynote speakers.

“It all comes back to networking,” Belver said of joining a trade organization. “You’ve got to be able to put a name with a face, and they’ve got to put a name with a face.”

As testament to the value of networking, the Colorado Film and Video Association’s members hold a monthly “Schmoozer,” which usually takes place at Wynkoop Brewery in Denver. And with historic LoDo as the backdrop, this schmooze session really takes on the appearance of a scaled-down Hollywood free-for-all with producers talking shop with directors, who get their ears pulled by casting agents, who in turn get hit-up by actors.

“Six years ago we had 40 members,´ said CFVA President John Wickre. Now the group’s membership stands at about 400 strong. “We’re rolling out a new logo in about a week.”

For the most part, any employer who realizes the value of these organizations will encourage their employees to join one. Also, socializing with really smart people can be interesting and provocative, and not to mention, when the going gets tough, these trade organizations will serve as a support group.

As for my own success story: soon after I volunteered to contribute articles to the BWA Web site, I was asked to take over as the editor of the articles section. Two months after I brushed up on HTML and wrote and edited more technology-related stories, I called Kersch back.

“Do you happen to have any technical writing openings at the moment,” I asked.

“Why certainly. If you are still interested, you’re more than welcome to come in for an interview,” he replied.

The rest was history.

Two years ago I found myself tossed into the simmering stew of unemployed journalists for the third time in two years. This, plus the fact the job market overflowed with young piranhas and old crocodiles in the same trade, told me it was time to make a career change. Obviously I needed a new approach.

During the ritualistic consultation with my unemployment counselor, I was convinced to try technical writing. Reluctantly, I called Richard Kersch, the Boulder branch manager for Southeastern Computer Consultants Inc., a private consulting firm contracted by Lockheed Martin Mission Systems in Boulder.

Kersch told me I needed experience…

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