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Making the Switch to an Association Career

You don’t have to work at an association to get a job at an association. One association professional who made the switch from the for-profit world shares lessons learned for others looking for their first association job. Step one: Identify your transferable skills.

By Toya Cribbs 

As a supplier employed in the hotel industry, I always wanted to work on the association side of the business. Although I enjoyed my role, I was also intrigued about having a career at an association.

I knew what I wanted to do, but transitioning into an association job seemed overwhelming to me. In 2005, I was living and working in New Orleans, and, when Hurricane Katrina struck, my family and I evacuated to the Washington, DC, area. So there I was in a new town without a job, and I decided this would be the perfect opportunity to explore a new career.

If you’re thinking about moving into the association industry from another sector, these tips drawn from my own experience might be helpful to you.

Start with Your Skills

Where to begin? Start by considering your skill set, talents, and gifts. You will probably be surprised to learn that associations have many comparable positions that would be a good fit. Also consider where you see yourself in 10 years to ensure that moving to an association meshes well with your personal and professional goals.

Doing a self-evaluation was an important part of my process. It allowed me to qualify the expertise and skills that I had gained not only through education and job experience, but also in everyday life. For example, long before I was a professional event planner, I planned reunions and trips for my family. My attention to detail and natural desire to organize helped me succeed as a planner.

I worked in the hotel industry for 12 years and spent the last five years in sales. A position at an association that involved planning and customer service was a perfect fit for me. And knowing the hotel industry inside and out was a big advantage in establishing my potential and value to the association industry.

It’s also important to pay attention to feedback from employers, family, and close friends. For example, I’ve consistently been praised for my customer service skills, so I was confident in highlighting excellent customer service as a value I could bring to an association employer. Take the time to determine the best ways to market your skills in this new industry. After all, you cannot sell yourself if you do not know what you are selling.

When you update your resume and cover letter, ensure they communicate your ability to be effective in your new industry. Remember that your natural talents are just as important as your education and prior work experience.

I worked in the hotel industry for 12 years and spent the last five years in sales. A position at an association that involved planning and customer service was a perfect fit for me.

Keep Learning

Early in my career, I joined a professional organization that promoted education via newsletters, webinars, conferences, and workshops. Being engaged in the community that I wanted to work in helped me to better understand the industry and to focus on where I needed to broaden my skill set and build my confidence. If joining a professional organization is not a viable option for you, look for free webinars, newsletters, and other publications to which you can subscribe in order to engage in continuous learning.

Volunteering is another way to keep learning while also broadening your network. Actively look for opportunities to volunteer and participate. Find a cause that is close to your heart or a topic you are passionate about. As a survivor of a natural disaster, I looked for opportunities to volunteer with organizations that helped others in similar situations.

Network, Network, Network!

Network as much as possible. Look for events and other opportunities to meet people with similar interests. Finding a mentor is a good alternative if networking events don’t fit into your busy schedule. The key is to find a way to reach out to people who are already working in the industry you want to work in.

Be patient in your search. Finding the right fit for your personality and skill set will take time— but it’s well worth the effort. Associations are always looking for talented people to help advance their mission. Finding ways to stand out in your search and fit in once you’re hired are the keys to success.

Toya Cribbs, CHS, is the meetings and events manager at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance in Arlington, Virginia. Email: [email protected]

Career Development