As you’ve probably noticed, I haven’t blogged much in the last few weeks. I’ve been out on the road launching the Twitter Job Search Guide (now in it’s second printing), talking about social media, and primarily—connecting with colleagues, listening, and learning offline.

This week I was in Baltimore for the Career Thought Leaders conference where I picked up more tips in a week from my peers and mentors than I could learn in three years on my own. (Many thanks to all of my friends who attended and shared ideas.)

I write this post from a ski resort near Park City, Utah, where I’m spending a long weekend with healthcare recruiters and staffing professionals. It’s hard to help people apply for jobs if you don’t have the perspective of hiring managers, recruiters and others in the hiring process. Learning their point of view, preferences, and pet peeves helps me do a better job.

It’s an amazing experience to have a week of collaborative dialogue, and I look forward to resuming my regular blog schedule in early April. But in the interim, I wanted to write a quick post (which would be this one), about something that has very much been on my mind this week: the inestimable value of professional associations, symposiums, and conferences.

You may have friends and family ties that run deep and extend wide. You may have wonderful colleagues in your current and past work lives. There may be a temptation to say, “These advisors are all I need. Why should I spend my money to invest in professional associations or to travel to conferences? Especially now given the recession.”

These are common sentiments, but to all of these, I say, “Think again.” Some of my strongest sources of information, trends, and support are people I’ve met at conferences. I met my co-authors for the Twitter Job Search Guide—Deb Dib and Susan Whitcomb at the Career Management Alliance conference two years ago as I was beginning my private practice. I also made friends, found mentors, and learned best practices in the process. This is a common experience of conference attendees.

Investing in your career by going to professional meetings is one of the strongest investments that you can make in yourself and your career. Even—and especially—if you pay for it yourself. It may put a strain on your wallet temporarily, but if you make sure that the continuing education events you attend are relevant to your interests and have opportunities to network—it is very hard to lose. Especially if you set a goal to walk away with at least five new connections.

One statistic I learned this week is that 51% of all hires in 2008 were the direct result of internal connections at the hiring organization. While friends, neighbors and other networking contacts can help you by providing introductions, knowing others in your field is often a more direct connection to building “ties on the inside.”

Can’t go to a conference? Professional association membership can be equally helpful—and many associations have local chapter meetings that you can also attend. Most conferences also set up Twitter hashtags (searchable tags that you can use to find all the conversations on a single topic) that you can use to follow conversations, engage in dialogue, and identify potential new connections. The tag for this week’s Career Thought Leaders conference was #ctl2010; you can see our aggregated thoughts and comments by doing a search on #ctl2010 here.

I’m off to spend the morning with recruiters. If you’d like to share success stories, questions about conferences, or suggestions on how to leverage continuing education events—please weigh in below.