Hello. My Name Is Jen
Regardless of your industry, I guarantee there is at least one, if not a dozen, applicable professional associations that could impact your working knowledge. This is one of the first things I did when I got my first jobby-job. My schooling was in quality assurance, and the association I heard of again and again was the American Society for Quality (ASQ). Within this international organization (despite its name), there are a variety of divisions that specialize in different fields. My interest was in Service organizations, so I joined the Service Quality Division of ASQ. Their conferences provided me with real-life examples of my profession that I had not yet experienced in my budding career. And it was through these conferences that I met some amazing people who invited me (some might say "coerced" me) into joining a committee. (I'll just say that drinks may have been involved). In any case, by working on these committees I added many more skills to my arsenal: conference planning, booking speakers, budget-planning, strategic planning, newsletter editing, and more. 13 years later, the people I have met through this professional association are people that I feel comfortable turning to when I need someone to bounce a work idea off of. Some of these people have written professional recommendations for me based on the work I've done for the association. During my 2 years as an independent business consultant, I even got a couple of business referrals from this group.
In past years, I was much more involved and attended monthly local chapter meetings or worked on major initiatives, such as participating on the steering committee to create a Service Quality Body of Knowledge. These days, with a young family, I participate in other ways, but I do stay involved, whether through participating in the conference planning committee or editing the newsletter. There may even be a time when I simply exist as a member without committee responsibilities. The choice is mine. But the relationships, experiences and learning opportunities have been priceless - especially in times of job transition!
I'm also sure to attend many industry events. For me, that may mean attending the National Apartment Association's Education Conference and Exposition (this year's speaker is Richard Branson). Or the Apartment Internet Marketing conference, this year in Huntington Beach - practically my own back yard! While I'm not naturally a networker, I understand the value in seeing people and being seen. It's a good feeling to walk into an event and see several people light up when they see you, and you light up in return! It's especially great to connect names with faces, especially as a teleworker. At these industry events I get to hug or shake hands with people with whom I have monthly calls. That personal connection makes the business relationship that much stronger. They can look me in the eye, chat about this situation or that challenge, share a bite to eat or a cocktail, and at the end of the interaction, they walk away feeling that much more confident that their company is in good hands with me.
There are other associations that I stay connected with, even if I'm not an official member. For example, I am on the email list for the International Association of Business Communicators because their monthly lunch meetings have incredible speakers that touch on topics I'm responsible for in my work. I may not be a member, but I'll pay their guest fee to attend some luncheons.
Do it. Search for professional associations in your industry. See if there is a local chapter. Attend a lunch meeting or an event. Introduce yourself. See what it has to offer you and your career development. See what you might have to offer them. You'll be surprised at the value you add to yourself and your organization!