Bridging the Gap: When Temporary Work Makes Sense

Job transitions are common – most professionals will face a lay-off, leave a bad-fit job or take a hiatus for personal reasons at some point in their career. A gap in employment can be a good opportunity to pursue temporary or project-based work. Even if you’re conducting an active full-time job search there are many advantages for balancing that quest with some kind of flexible interim work.

In 2012 I coached an alumna, Julie, MBA ’08, who found herself out of work and frustrated as the search seemed to drag on. She knew that patience and persistence in her job search was necessary, but also that it wasn’t productive to spend 40+ hours a week on search tactics.  She decided to seek out temporary projects to occupy some of her free time, to keep her management skills fresh, and to shore-up her confidence in the face of an unknown length of unemployment.

Julie landed her full-time job after about six months of searching, and in the gap, two projects became very rewarding. She looked for things that used her MBA talents – one project was very analytical and numbers oriented, the other focused on developing a strategy, structure and training plan for a service-based philanthropic concern.  She listed the work at the top of her resume and on her LinkedIn profile, so hiring managers could see that she was active and engaged in the community.   It also allowed her to demonstrate to hiring managers that although she’d been laid off, someone else was impressed enough with her skills to engage. In interviews she talked about the initiative she took to find projects and how she was using her time to contribute to the welfare of other organizations. She stretched her skills in new and exciting ways but later realized that the real satisfaction was seeing her recommendations have a positive impact.

Freelance work can give you some flexibility while you search or even if you want to delay returning to a permanent post. Julie’s work was strictly volunteer, as her immigration status restricted her from being paid in temp positions. Some alumni have pursed paid projects in order to take the pressure off of accepting the first offer of permanent employment. Others have used project work to try out new interests or deepen their experience in a particular area.

Here are some tips for finding meaningful temporary work:

Be Curious, Stay Local.  Julie’s first project evolved out a comment she overheard from the owner of a local food truck, “there are too many French fries left over at the end of the day.” That got Julie thinking about how a food truck could operate profitably, so she sent him an email with some thoughts about how to solve that French fry problem. A few weeks later he reached out with a request to analyze his operation.  She jumped at the chance to dig into his data, and she used her knowledge of the food industry gained in her Darden summer internship to guide the analysis and recommendations.

Contribute to a Cause.  Julie’s second project came through an organization where she was already a volunteer and passionate about the mission. Helping solve thorny staffing and strategy issues gave her a hands-on perspective about managing people. Another alumna who served on the board of a non-profit conservation agency was able to step into the vacant Executive Director role during her job search; acting as interim Executive Director lent credibility to her bid for a job in a related industry.

Use Unique Expertise.  Some alumni recognize that they have reached a milestone in their careers where their deep industry or functional expertise makes them ready to become a freelance consultant.  Our ACS webpage on Independent Consulting digs into this topic and gives plenty of resources. Work/Life Balance has additional resources for alumni who want to consult without setting up their own business.

Pursue Fledgling Ideas.  A break from full-time work can open up the time to flesh out your own ideas for a product or service start-up.  Our page on Entrepreneurship has more tips for researching, writing a business plan and seeking funding. Not everyone becomes an entrepreneur but the experience of pursuing your own interests as a business can be enlightening in many ways.

Use a Match-maker.  A recent WSJ articled outlined how MBA-level project matching sites are gaining momentum (“For Smaller Projects, Try Renting an M.B.A.” Feb 5, 2014). Sites like ExconsultantsAgency, HourlyNerd, MBA&Co, and SkillBridge attempt to pair projects to talent.

Notice that most of these tips require a clear objective, networking and self-promotion – the very same elements of a solid job search. Temporary work can bridge the time till you return as well as build momentum in your career.

Marty Speight MBA ‘96, Associate Director of the Armstrong Center for Alumni Career Services at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

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