The job market still sucks, but here is a secret some savvy job hunters tell: they landed great jobs by first volunteering. Sounds paradoxical: you give it away so that eventually you get paid. But just maybe that indirect path is the fastest way to meaningful work.

Both Baby Boomers - at or beyond retirement - and also Millennials trying to get a toehold in the workplace say volunteering has been their path to great, paying work. 

But first: why does volunteering clear the path to cool work? “Professional resume writers often list a client's volunteer experience on the resume, especially when it illustrates an important skill," said Joni Holderman at Thrive! Resumes. "There's no law that says the resume must only list paid positions.”

That’s fact: a volunteer position shows skill and expertise every bit as much as a paid one.

Exactly where should you volunteer? A belief among multiple career counselors is that often volunteering leads to paying work precisely, because we are following our passions. We may work at any paying job to cover the rent but when it comes to giving up our free time, we want to be believers. But exactly that enthusiasm may let us shine and get noticed by people who have paying jobs to fill.

As for your ideal volunteering options, career counselor Roy Cohen, author of The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide, said: “Volunteer opportunistically -- as a way to get your foot in the door. It should do more than fill time. Think about it as strategic volunteering. You take on projects that will offer meaningful work experience.”

Here’s proof volunteering works. James Mazza told how volunteering led to his first job. “I started as a volunteer at the Nutley [New Jersey] Volunteer Emergency & Rescue Squad when I was 19," he said. "In my mind I was doing this as a stepping stone for a career in law enforcement. Instead after I graduated college, while many of my friends from the class of 2009 could not find jobs, I was hired full time before my graduation day. I got hired as an emergency medical technician [EMT] by a healthcare system. [Later] I was able to turn my EMT experience into a dispatch supervisor job at a medium-sized ambulance company.”

Don Achenbach said he was an active volunteer on the Thiel College Strategic Planning Initiative - he’s an alum of the Greenville, Pa. school - and “demonstrated such passion and knowledge for the planning process" that when it came time for implementation, he was offered a vice president position.

"It was certainly not my goal when volunteering to be on the steering committee but sometimes life can take a serendipitous turn,” he said.

  
In Baltimore, Anna Renault said she had retired at the age of 51 and she volunteered at the public library to teach a free introduction to computers class. A year later, she was asked if she would accept a paid position, teaching computer skills at the library. She happily accepted.

Alina Adams has another version. Three times she had helped get her own kids into New York City kindergarten - a grueling competition at better schools - and so she often found herself asked by other, anxious parents how she did it. That led to her offering workshops at pre-schools and that led to her authoring a book Getting Into NYC Kindergartens. She also offers private consultations for a fee. “What started out as just volunteering my time and sharing experience led to a new profession and certainly more than I ever intended to make from it,” said Adams.  

Sometimes, too, the process works in nonlinear ways. Mary Kaarto, now a speaker and author, told how a decade ago, she was out of work and also served as a volunteer caregiver for a woman with chronic MS. “I never in my life had met anyone who needed help more - or suffered such pain,” she said. So Kaarto asked a preacher if she could tell his congregation about the patient and her sufferings and encouraged them to help. The preacher agreed.

“The following week I received a check for $1,500 from a couple in that very large class whom I had never met before," said Kaarto. "With the check was a note on how touched they were to see me standing in front of the class with my knee the size of a large beehive, on crutches due to a fall, a single mom out of work, advocating for another single mom.”

Kaarto - because she saw her mom die from what she calls “medical negligence” - formed a group called Senior Sitters Ministry, to watch over seniors who may need a guardian angel. That led to a gig as a paid editor at ADVANCE for NURSES. She never did the right things in hopes of benefitting. It just happened that way.

As it often seems to.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.