CHICAGO (Reuters) - When out-of-work accountant Jim Ammon tires of scouring for scarce job listings, he takes out his frustrations by driving in nails for new houses he volunteers to build for the working poor.
Laura Spelke volunteers at the United Way charity in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in part to escape the sting of losing her sales job: "Volunteering is a way to stay active and stay in touch and not sit home and eat bonbons feeling sorry for myself."
Jennifer Whiddon, a Mobile, Alabama, public relations expert laid off from two jobs in the past year, volunteers out of both selflessness and self-interest: "Being around people who are still working and letting them know my situation is actually encouraging to me. In the end, I know making the connections will pay off."
Anecdotal evidence indicates that some among the swelling ranks of the unemployed -- the U.S. jobless rate hit a 16-year high of 7.6 percent and is expected to climb -- are offering their services for free to nonprofits ranging from church-run food pantries to groups that assign mentors to children.
But hard numbers are difficult to find.
Applications to Projects Abroad, a private organization that directs thousands of volunteers to developing countries, jumped 55 percent in December and nearly 50 percent in January compared to a year earlier. Volunteers must pay their own way.
The group's founder, Peter Slowe, said a growing proportion of new applicants are middle-aged people who find themselves unemployed or underemployed and have long thought about testing their abilities, or are just fed up.
"It's the push factor: 'we might get a salary cut, the job's at risk ... the shop's not making any money, the farm's not making money.' Those are the kind of motivations rather than just being chucked out of work," Slowe said.
Unemployment triggers a whole set of struggles from how to pay bills and put food on the table to finding something to do while applying for other jobs. Volunteering can fill a gap in job history and supplies the answer to an interviewer's question, "what have you been doing?"
"There's only so many days that you can sit home and go through Craigslist looking for a job," said Ammon, 52, who lost his position a year ago and volunteers for Habitat for Humanity in Raleigh, North Carolina.
"It feels good to hit that nail on the head sometimes. You can picture the boss' face on there," he joked.
The U.S. government-run AmeriCorps and Peace Corps, which demand one or two years of service for a small stipend, have seen small increases in applications that began last year.
"Going into the Peace Corps is a big personal commitment," said spokesman Laura Latigue, who said there are three applicants for each of 7,800 overseas slots. "It has more to do with people wanting to do service rather than the ups and downs of the job market."
Older Peace Corps aspirants may by inspired by a life-changing event such as the loss of a spouse, she said.
"There is a renewed sense of compassion reignited by people seeing the struggles their neighbors are going through," said Sandy Scott of AmeriCorps, which will expand its budget by one-third to $750 million because of the stimulus package.
On a local level, the impetus to volunteer may be more likely to come from someone asking than an urge from within.
Half the 62 million Americans who volunteered last year said they did because they were asked to, according to a survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The survey found 22 percent of unemployed people volunteer, compared to 34 percent of part-time workers.
The rise in unemployment is unlikely to generate a surge in volunteerism, since those losing jobs are busy looking for work or going to school to learn new skills, said Leslie Lenkowsky, a Philanthropic Studies professor at Indiana University.
Volunteers can be fickle, with one-third dropping out from year to year, and the median commitment is an hour a week.
Ammon said he used his newly learned construction skills to renovate several homes and has earned needed cash as a handy-man. Meanwhile, he rubbed shoulders with everyone from executives to receptionists whose companies gave them days off to volunteer.
And he never tires of the outpouring of joy when a new owner is handed the key to a house they built together.
Editing by Michael Conlon and David Wiessler