The last thing 32-year-old Mandy Henk expected from volunteering at the Occupy Wall Street library was an invitation to speak at the American Library Association's 2012 Midwinter Conference in Dallas, Texas. That speaking engagement will help raise her profile among the 10,000 other librarians there to network and share new ideas, she said.
Henk, a certified librarian who handles circulation, reserves and interlibrary loans at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., joined the movement in late September and rediscovered the role she cares most about -- connecting people with information. Since then, she has commuted back and forth between Greencastle and Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan with a focus on developing new models for libraries at a time when many are facing budget shortfalls.
"I'm a faculty librarian, so being professionally active is something that my peers at my home institution judge me on," she said. "Having the opportunity to refine my skills working with such a diverse population is really valuable in that regard."
As the Occupy Wall Street movement pushes into its sixth week and continues to spread to other cities around the globe, participants are discovering an unexpected benefit as they organize to protest America's winners-take-all economy and lobby for higher taxes on the rich. Many of them are gaining more hands-on experience and saleable skills to help them in their career pursuits.
"The movement is a great platform for people to identify what they do well and show that to future employers," said Ginny Clarke, president and chief executive of the HR consulting firm Talent Optimization Partners and author of the book Career Mapping: Charting Your Course in the New World of Work. "There's a commitment and zeal behind what many of these individuals are doing and that's exactly what recruiters look for."
Occupy Wall Street's most involved participants have formed about 40 "working groups," individual committees from "sanitation" to "finance" to "arts and culture" to "people of color." In addition to keeping the movement active, those groups are serving as training grounds for their members to develop new strengths like public speaking, organizing and mediation.
"My involvement is helping my professional growth," said Kanene Holder, 31, a Brooklyn native who teaches at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, N.J., and volunteers with the "people of color" group as well as its press team. "I've been gaining a new level of people skills, as well as the ability to help manage events and talk to the media," she said, "Those are all important for what I do."
Victoria Sobel, one of the movement's original members, has also added to her skill set since she joined Occupy Wall Street in mid-September, she said. Her involvement has now become a full-time gig and so extensive that she decided to take a year off from art school.
"A lot of what I've learned so far has been about using technology to get things in motion," said the 21-year-old Cooper Union student who helped start the "finance" group and now works with the live streaming branch of the "media" group. "I'm constantly honing my ability to solve problems as I work with live streaming and handle different kinds of outreach through the Web."
In addition to gaining new skills, others are finding practical uses for the talents they already have, like some of the volunteer lawyers providing legal aid to protestors and a handful of the money managers helping account for the movement's several hundred thousand dollars in donations. For the ones without full-time jobs, Occupy Wall Street has become a way to stay active in a down economy, said Ben Meyers, 41, a recent CUNY law graduate and part-time volunteer with the nonprofit legal organization the National Lawyers Guild.
"People are writing press releases, organizing kitchens, organizing thousands of other people. That's real work," he said. "The Guild's members have been assisting in the representation of the protestors who have been arrested. Having just finished law school, being able to work with the more experienced defense lawyers is a great opportunity for me."
The number of opportunities to gain and develop skills will likely increase as Occupy Wall Street grows to resemble more of an organization, said Chuck Kaufman, a co-coordinator of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group Alliance for Global Justice, which has agreed to sponsor the movement and help manage its tax write-offs.
"The people involved are finding more uses for their talents, whether they have been working for years or have yet to finish college," he said.
But while the movement has started to attract more active members, many of them are hearing a few words of caution: Beware of the stigma attached to social disruption, park squatting and what some consider an undefined mission. Five protestors said they will only speak to the press anonymously, while others said that they have friends who would like to participate, but refuse to get involved due to concerns about their jobs.
"The main issue for those already settled in their careers is that you can't bring your politics to work, even if you're not using work time to participate," said Clarke of Talent Optimization Partners. "If you appear on the news and you're a representative of a certain company, that might not go over well. A lot of employers don't want to be directly associated with Occupy Wall Street whether they agree with the movement or not."
Activism is usually better suited for those interested in nonprofit or political work and less beneficial for those who might later consider a job in corporate America or mainstream media, said career expert Jayne Mattson.
"If I were interviewing someone and suddenly said to myself, 'Hey I've seen this person in the streets,' I would start to wonder how much thought that person put into his or her involvement at the time," said Mattson, senior vice president of the Boston-based career management firm Keystone Associates. "Those involved in the movement need to think that through.
"But, hey, they set up a real community with people and technology. That's no different than a start-up."
Write to Damian Ghigliotty at Damian.Ghigliotty@dowjones.com