San Joaquin Valley residents find volunteering one way to win job

Still looking for work after being laid off months ago?

Take some advice from an expert in helping people land jobs — become a volunteer.

It's advice that Sue Cotter — a work-force consultant with Alliance Worknet — does more than preach. She practices it.

Cotter, 54, moved here in February 2008 from upstate New York without a job. Within two months she was volunteering at the Stanislaus Literacy Center. The center hired her two months later. She left in December 2008 to take her current position.

"I use myself as an example," said Cotter, who works in the Alliance Worknet's resource center in the state Employment Development Department office in downtown Modesto.

Cotter is not the only one who sees value in volunteering.

More people who've lost their jobs or had their hours cut are showing up at United Way of Stanislaus County's Volunteer Center, which matches volunteers with about 250 nonprofit, and health and social services agencies.

"I think across the state lots of people are volunteering to gain experience, to network, to build their résumés so they can land that job," said Barbara Borba, Volunteer Center coordinator. "Usually, they are unemployed or working part time."

Borba said about 25 percent of the people who come to the Volunteer Center are out of work, had their hours cut, are recent graduates trying to get that first job in their field, or have taken early retirement because of the sour economy and want to remain active.

She said these would-be volunteers come from all walks of life, from business professionals and the college educated to blue-collar workers and those whose education ended with high school.

Before the recession, about 10 percent to 15 percent of the people at the Volunteer Center were unemployed or recent college, high school or training program graduates.

There's no guarantee that volunteering will lead to a job, especially with Stanislaus County mired in an ugly recession and with an unemployment rate of 17.2 percent, although Borba said some of the volunteers the center has placed have landed paying work.

But volunteering has other benefits.

"It really helped me to stay focused and not be depressed and upset and sit around and have nothing to do," said Modesto resident Lem Klein, who volunteered at United Way after being laid off from E.&J. Gallo Winery in May after more than 18 years with the company.

Klein — who handled safety and training for Gallo's Modesto warehouse — used his volunteer work to network for his next job. He landed three interviews, but got his job supervising warehouse operations for California Natural Products in Manteca through

"I like to think it helps," Klein said about his volunteer work. "It shows you are active in the community, taking a role to make things better."

Cotter moved here because she always wanted to live somewhere sunny and was tired of the snow. She said people in her old hometown of Oswego, N.Y., tell this joke about the weather: "There are two seasons: winter and the Fourth of July."

Although she has a master's degree in adult education and a long work history as an employment counselor, finding a job wasn't as easy as Cotter thought it would be and it was a little depressing.

All those applications sent off, only to be greeted with no response or a "thank you for applying but we have more qualified applicants." Too many questions from people asking about the job hunt.

"Doing a job search just trashes your self-esteem," Cotter said.

Volunteering gave Cotter a place to go, a chance to meet people, learn more about her new community. She also felt more confident when she went on job interviews.

"It's like going to work," she said, "but instead you're going to volunteer. People appreciate what you do."

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at or 578-2316.