Your Career as a Volunteer

I've come to understand that when one person tells another person to do something, the instructions often represent the requester's most basic expectations. To many people, fulfilling any set of carefully laid out instructions -- whether they are from an employer, a friend, a mentor, or a coach -- means completing and delivering the bare minimum. Such an effort is worth only a passing grade. To surpass the merely adequate, and to accomplish something noteworthy, requires one to take on tasks that are unstated and to solve problems that others may not have even noticed.

Volunteering while on the job

Depending on the structure of your work environment, there may be opportunities to do this professionally. At a small company like AIChE, where I work, the staff often has more projects to pursue than there is time to complete them. A situation like this can give young employees a chance to demonstrate their versatility and competence by helping with projects that might not be in their job descriptions, but that allow them to pursue their interests and demonstrate their ability to accomplish the organization's goals.

For a young professional, taking on a new role or contributing skills outside of one's defined job description provides an opportunity to excel in the workplace without having attained the technical expertise of more-experienced coworkers. For example, today's young engineers -- who have never known a time when high-power personal computing was not a fully integrated part of their lives -- can play to this strength on the job, expertly demonstrating to more-seasoned but less-computer-savvy engineers how to accomplish a variety of tasks more efficiently.

Leadership opportunities

Even outside the office, there are many opportunities to contribute to the engineering community -- and carve a niche for oneself -- through leadership roles. Young professionals with experience in all fields can get involved in the leadership of AIChE's volunteer activity groups, including local sections and young professionals groups, technical divisions and forums, and Institute-level committees devoted to a variety of projects that serve chemical engineers and the profession at large.

Patrick Gormley, chair of the Maryland Local Section, encourages chemical engineers in his community to expand their experiences and connections by joining the local section, attending the events it sponsors, and trying everything that sections have to offer -- including K-12 and public outreach activities, plant tours, monthly technical talks, and interaction with chemical engineering students.

AIChE leadership workshop

AIChE supports the essential work of its local section volunteer leaders through annual training workshops that give member volunteers a better understanding of AIChE's mission and objectives, and help to build a strong connection between the Institute and its grassroots representatives on the local and regional levels. The next such opportunity for this connection is the 2013 AIChE Local Sections' Leadership Workshop (LSLW), to be held April 27-28 in San Antonio, TX, in conjunction with the 2013 Spring Meeting and Global Congress on Process Safety. Travel grants for the LSLW are offered to local sections with less than $15,000 in reserves or to potential leaders (including AIChE young professionals) who are interested in starting or re-energizing a local section. You can register and find grant information here.

Gormley attended the 2012 Local Sections' Leadership Workshop, in Houston, TX, where he says he learned to think about how his section can impact the lives of the engineers in his community. He noted that the LSLW "was a great place to hear about what other local section leaders are doing," and that every section leader "faces the same issues, namely, how do we maintain relevance in our members' lives?"

Gormley says that he was particularly inspired by the young professional leaders he met. He has taken some of their nontraditional programming suggestions back to his section, where he has created more social-educational activities, such as a beer tasting event coupled with a viewing of the AIChE webinar about beer brewing. (The webinar is available to members here.) Gormley encourages other leaders to "inspire the habit of attending local section meetings in members before they get older and their lives become busier."

Outreach to students

Many young professionals also find that they can make a meaningful contribution to their communities through volunteer service.

Jason Huang, an AIChE member from Houston, TX, makes presentations at his neighborhood high school's National Honor Society about the path that led him to study and practice chemical engineering. (You can read about Jason's outreach work here.) Other AIChE members are creating high school outreach programs based on their work in solids processing and reaction engineering.

Regardless of your specific interests, there are many opportunities to take on leadership roles in AIChE. And, if you find that you are not passionate about one volunteer activity, there are always plenty more to choose from.

Gormley says that his local section members are "leaders in industry, working to make their community more successful. Working with them to improve that community is gratifying in itself."

When it comes to taking on a new leadership function -- within or outside of work -- inaction is the only choice that is truly regrettable.

How has volunteering made a difference in your career or life?

This article appeared in the March issue of CEP Magazine, which is available to members online, including an extensive archives of back issues.