Archive for the ‘The World at Work’ Category

What’s it really like to work in international aid? ctd.

Friday, September 4th, 2009

I’ve never worked in international aid, and more and more I realize that the realities of being an international aid worker in the field are very much different than doing many other kinds of international work, largely because of the security concerns and other extreme difficulties that arise when living and working in the dark and dangerous parts of the world. Thus, I’ve been trying to highlight, via links to those who know and who’ve been there, what it’s really like to be an international aid and humanitarian worker. Michael Bear in particular does a great job—he’s been chronicling the realities of a number of the big aid agencies, and yesterday posted on the myths about international aid work. Surely you can’t really know what it’s like to be an aid worker until you’ve done it—but if you’re considering a career in aid, I think it’s terribly important to be aware of the realities of before diving in.

It’s Friday morning

Friday, September 4th, 2009

This made me laugh (both the exchange, as well as the clarification that we are indeed meant to find it “humorous”):

“How many people work here?”

“About half of them.”

—Answer, to a journalist, of an American ambassador regarding the staff at her embassy; anecdote meant to be humorous

From John Brown.

Graduates on a jolly

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

I’ve had this post in my queue for some time now, but have continually neglected it—partly because as the pace of things slowed down here in DC during August, the pace of my posts followed suit, but also because I began to rethink what I wanted to say. The post was prompted by an article from several weeks ago from the BBC: in an effort to give unemployed graduates something to do, the British government is paying 500 people under 24 to travel abroad and take part in projects “such as building schools”:

It comes as graduates face an increasingly tough job market. Forty-eight graduates are chasing every job on offer this year, according to a study by the Association of Graduate Recruiters.

The 10-week expeditions – to Borneo, India, Costa Rica and Nicaragua – will enable graduates to work on community and environmental volunteering projects in remote communities.

Reflecting on this story, here’s what I initially wrote, again, several weeks ago:

“It’s no surprise that I agree with one sentiment behind this initiative—that abroad experience is good prep for our careers, international and otherwise. But my main query to the organizers of said British government program would be: how well have you thought this through? Harkening back to our various debates of the merits of international volunteering, I think it’s fair to ask what the benefits of this program will be, beyond giving graduates in a rough economy something (worthwhile) to do. That is, how will the program benefit the communities in which these graduates will serve? Have the programs been fully fleshed out? Or will these 500 folks just be plopped into their host countries and given a hammer, with little consideration as to the local workers they may be displacing and the learning curve inherent in any development project that may make their efforts, while well-intentioned, potentially fruitless? The following comment from Wes Streeting, the National Union of Students president, doesn’t give me hope that much of this has been considered:

Funding opportunities for skills development is surely better than the soul destroying experience of sitting at home, watching Jeremy Kyle, on the dole.

While I have no idea who Jeremy Kyle is and am only moderately sure I know what ‘on the dole’ means, the sentiment that we might as well plop our youth down in poor places since they’ve got nothing better to do seems a bit ill conceived. Gaining valuable skills and career preparation by working/living abroad? Very nice. Giving no thought to the community you will be working in while gaining that experience? Not as much.”

For some reason, though, I was hesitant to push the publish button. I realized this was because I wasn’t sure I agreed with what I was saying. I thought back to my own volunteer experience in China, an experience I decided to plop myself down into, yes, partly because I wanted to learn Chinese and add another abroad experience to my resume and help a community, but also, I can admit, because it sounded a lot better than the alternative (which for me, at that time, was the soul destroying experience of working as a real estate sales associate for a grocery store corporate office). So how could I condemn people for doing what I had in fact done?

So: On the one hand, I do generally think it’s a bad idea for volunteers to be blindly plopped down where they may not end up accomplishing the good they hope to accomplish, or even end up harming locals by taking away jobs, etc. On the other hand, though, getting plopped down in a spot that you know very little about and being asked to do work of which you have very little experience can be incredibly rewarding, for both the volunteer and those in the local community. This belief comes from my personal experience: I showed up in the Yanbian region of China to teach English with zero knowledge regarding Yanbian, China, or how to teach English. Yet my struggles with language, regional culture, and how to be an effective teacher were an indelible learning experience and have benefited me enormously, personally and professionally. And I believe I ended up being an effective teacher (and even a role model) for my students, despite my initial struggles (I still keep in touch with several of them and they have commented how I was their first foreign teacher and our classes for them were formative in their study of English—I take great pride in comments like these).

The particular nature of the volunteer assignment, as well as the length of time spent in a place, can affect all of this, of course. Some assignments can be learned through on-the-job training and experience, especially given enough time (say, a year, as in my case:  a TESOL-certified teacher may have been “better” out of the gate, but I think I eventually morphed into a quality teacher). Others require more specific training and skill and couldn’t be learned on the fly no matter how long you keep at it (if I tried to volunteer with one of the international environmental evaluation projects my friend Derek works on, I’d be horribly lost and would probably do more harm than good).

The conclusion is, per usual, that there’s no cut and dry answer. And while I tend to agree that good intentions aren’t always enough when it comes to a volunteer project, especially an international development one, I still heartily believe that arriving in place with everything to learn can be a formative experience for all involved.

Make your friends before you need them

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

August in DC is a slow motion month. The air thickens up like a wet sweater. Congress is in recess. Office buildings empty out as people burn those hoarded vacation days, fleeing for cooler, less sticky pastures. And everyone who remains in town moves slowly through the streets with pained and uncomfortable expressions, as if they’re walking in a winter jacket through a locker room sauna. If there’s ever a time to not get things done in DC, it’s in August. 

Yet on the other hand, and in an odd way, it is a time to get things done—the slowness of everything allows you to tackle those projects you’ve been putting off, to take quality time to do those things through which you might normally rush. For me, in a very specific sense, I’ve discovered August is a wonderful time to sit down with Hill staffers for unrushed, genial, let’s-really-get-to-know-each-other chats.

Hill staffers have such full agendas and are so pressed for time that the typical Hill meeting is a condensed and very rushed affair—no time for small talk, get down to brass tacks, what do you want please tell me now. This isn’t mean to be a criticism of Hill staffers—in fact, I generally admire their ability to juggle so many complex issues and demands. Yet such rushed meetings rarely ever leave the time to actually get to know the Hill staffer and to find out more about his or her interests and the actual interests and priorities of his or her boss.

Yet, in August, things slow down to the point that meandering meetings of the get-to-know-each-other sort can happen. It’s refreshing, and I think highly beneficial, when my dealings with staffers can be less focused on ‘what can I do for you?’ and more focused on ‘how can we work together?’

So, the point is…?

1) Your networking shouldn’t always be focused on ‘how can this person help me?’ Rather, get to know someone for who they are and how you connect with them—you never know what might come of it.

2) Make your friends before you need them. When the time comes and you need to ask something of someone, it’s always better when the relationship has already been laid and you’re not shaking their hand hello at the same time you’re asking for a favor.

The “constant transformation” of the 21st century career

Friday, August 21st, 2009

Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, writes in the latest issue of eJournalUSA about the value of international education as career preparation:

In an ever-changing world, being a global citizen requires constant adaptation to new ideas and circumstances. This is why the process of transformation that foreign students experience as part of a U.S. education is so important: It prepares you for the constant transformation that will be required in a 21st-century career.

Dr. Goodman is writing in reference to foreign students studying in the U.S., but I think his larger point of international exposure as essential to that “process of transformation” required of a modern career extends to any student of any nationality living and studying in any country other than his or her own.

International Education Week ‘09

Monday, August 17th, 2009

David Comp got the same email I did: an alert that the 2009 International Education Week website is up and running. Start planning your activities for November 16 to 20. I’ll be going to Tulsa to talk about careers in international affairs. More on that to come.

Stay ugly, America

Friday, August 14th, 2009


Average Americans, in their natural state, are the best ambassadors a country can have.

So says “The Ugly American,” the 1958 novel by Eugune Burdick and William Lederer, with a film version starring Marlon Brando following in 1963. When I was an intern at NCIV in the summer of 2004, one of my assignments from Sherry was to read “The Ugly American” in its entirety and pull from it ideas that might be crafted into an op-ed extolling the virtues of international exchange. Brando had just died that July, and Sherry’s thought was that recalling one of his lesser known roles might make for an interesting article hook. 

Our finished article (I thought it was pretty good) didn’t get picked up by a paper in the end, but it was still a useful exercise—not only for the chance to write with Sherry but also because I got to read a book and get paid for it. And “The Ugly American” is a good read, quick but incisive, and still highly relevant. Yes, it provides fodder for us exchange types and our argument that it’s only through direct contact that barriers are broken down and misunderstanding conquered. But the book’s real contemporary value lies not necessarily in its recognition that Americans must engage the world (in many ways this has become a foregone conclusion, especially among the younger generation) but in its understanding that this engagement must been done thoughtfully, respectfully, and (not to put too fine a point on it) well. 

In other words, “The Ugly American” recognized in 1958, when it lambasted its diplomatic characters who never bothered to learn Sarkhanese, the language of the fictional country it portrays, what is still imperative today: when engaging the world, whether through our post-college year abroad or our official foreign policy and aid programs, it’s not enough to just show up. We’ve got to put in the time to learn the language too.

China: career catalyst and character builder

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

Even those with limited or no knowledge of Chinese are heeding the call. They are lured by China’s surging economy, the lower cost of living and a chance to bypass some of the dues-paying that is common to first jobs in the United States.

[...] A big draw of working in China, many young people say, is that they feel it allows them to skip a rung or two on the career ladder.

The Times profiles a bevy of young Americans who shipped out for China, both because of the lack of jobs at home as well as the feeling that China affords faster career advancement.

Not to be overlooked as well is the idea of China as a place that affords tremendous opportunity for personal and professional growth:

That said, Mr. Woetzel added, someone who has been able to make a mark in China is a valuable hire.

“At McKinsey, we are looking for people who have demonstrated leadership,” he said, “and working in a context like China builds character, requires you to be a lot more entrepreneurial and forces you to innovate.”

Most experiences living and working abroad build character, self-reliance, confidence, etc. (also see: How to convince your parents that studying and living abroad is good for your career). And not to take away from the virtues of living in any other country, but after having lived and worked in China myself, I can attest that the Middle Kingdom in particular provides character-building experiences in spades.

Is this what my dad meant when he said I should “use” my college degree?

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

This woman is suing her alma mater because she hasn’t been able to find gainful employment. I’m not even sure what to say.

Thanks to La for the tip.

UPDATE: The Atlantic is on to this story too. Daniel Indiviglio gets all over the plaintiff:

Who wouldn’t hire a 2.7 GPA (B- average) from the renowned Monroe College? Especially when those credentials include the attitude of someone who would sue her college. [...] This story illuminates a larger problem in the generation of instant gratification. Many young people in their 20s today are having trouble in employment due to short attention spans and the need for immediate recognition and advancement. Unfortunately, that’s not how the real world works.

Meanwhile, one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers is sympathetic to her plight:

If you read the actual court filing, it says: “[T]he Office of Career Advancement Information Technology Couselor [sic] did not make sure their Monroe e-recruiting clients call [sic] the graduates that recently finished college for a [sic] interview to get a job placement.” This is a very specific allegation. If the school promised to do something to assist graduates such as her in finding a job and they didn’t do the things they promised to do, they are in breach of the agreement. Now, she might not win the case, and she almost certainly won’t get the $2,000 she is looking for related to her stress. But she could easily have a valid claim and she doesn’t deserve to be mocked for asserting it.

Regardless of the validity of her claim or the reasons behind it, it would seem that she could be spending her time in infinitely more productive ways.

Falling into your career

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

As I look back, I think that sometimes you can’t have the five-year plan for yourself. If you’re doing something well, you tend to keep doing it. That’s how you fall into careers.

So says Carol Smith, senior vice president and chief brand officer for the Elle Group. Every time you start to worry about where you’ll be in the next few years or whether you’re on the “right track,” remember that even the most successful professionals didn’t have it all planned out.

How to convince your parents that studying/living abroad can actually help you get a job

Monday, July 27th, 2009

Smart Study Abroad says what I’ve long tried to convince my father of: that study abroad is not just about messing around in a foreign country but is also useful career prep (and not just for international careers but any career). Annie Everett from the University of Washington identifies three key skills she learned abroad that have helped her in her career progression: resourcefulness, exposure to cultural diversity, and redefining her idea of networking.

On a related note, Mauro Guillén at the Chronicle of Higher Ed. argues that languages aren’t just tools to achieve an end (as in, you study Chinese for the sole purpose of learning to speak, read, and research in Chinese) but rather something much more. Language study is, according to Guillén, a “fundamentally humbling process by which students learn that their culture and way of expressing it are relative, not absolute:”

Acquiring another language makes students better problem solvers, unleashing their ability to identify problems, enriching the ways in which they search and process information, and making them aware of issues and perspectives that they would otherwise ignore…

Learners of languages, by exposing themselves to other cultures and institutional arrangements, are more likely to see differences of opinion and conflicts by approaching a problem from perspectives that incorporate the values and norms of others as well as their own. Knowledge of other languages also fosters tolerance and mutual understanding. Language learning is thus much more than becoming operational in an environment different than one’s own. It is a powerful way of appreciating and respecting the diversity of the world.

These are all skills that employers (especially international exmployers) greatly value. Guillén also tackles the argument that an increasingly globalized world has cut out the need for language study.  Since “major multinational companies use English at their most important meetings,” why bother with anything but English? Because you severly limit your chances for success and promotion, says Guillén, if you don’t become proficient in the language of the country in which you’re working. “English proficiency may have become a necessary qualification for employment at most multinational organizations, but it is certainly not sufficient to pursue a successful professional career in an international context.”

By undermining the importance of learning other languages, we are losing an opportunity to educate our students to be better citizens of the world, and failing to provide them with the tools and mind-set they need to understand and solve complex problems.

All of these sound like arguments that might have worked pretty well on my dad back in the day.

Idealist isn’t always enough, ctd.

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

Last week I highlighted an international job seeker (a recent college graduate) who I felt was making some great moves when it came to her job search (moves, it turns out, that got her a job about a week after we met). What impressed me was the fact that she was getting out there and meeting people rather than relying solely on the Internet. She was contacting people directly and doing informational interviews rather than simply hoping that an application submitted blindly would be enough. (And I should note that I singled out Idealist in that post not as a slight but rather because I highly recommend it as an online job resource).

Anyway, following that post, a few readers inquired about the specifics of said job seeker’s tactics (apologies, by the way, for the mysteriousness created by calling this person “job seeker” rather than by name—nothing deep intended there, only caution). The gist of the readers’ questions were: How did this job seeker get these face-to-face meetings and informational interviews? Did she have a contact in the organizations? Did she simply call/email and ask for the meetings? Did she make a phone call and ask to see the person in charge?

Rather than speculate, I decided to ask our job seeker how she did it:

Before my move, I narrowed down where geographically I wanted to be (Washington, DC) and in what area I wanted to work (international exchange and global education). From there, I made a list of interesting organizations and located as many contacts of those organizations as possible. I emailed these contacts my resume and an explanation of my professional background and my future goals (working for an international exchange organization).

I received a reply less than 1/3 of the time. I kept in contact with these repliers and eventually met with them in person when I was in Washington, DC. These contacts also referred me to other employees of interesting organizations. I also kept in contact with individuals from organizations where I had been granted an internship/ job interview but was eventually turned down. It was a bit hard to keep in contact with an organization I felt did not want my skills, but I had to remember that they had an overabundance of applications and it was nothing to take personally. [My emphasis.]

From keeping contact with one of these individuals, I was granted admittance to an exclusive meeting with the president of the international exchange organization. I feel it was imperative to be organized in knowing what sort of job I wanted, as well as be perseverant in contacting individuals of interesting organizations.

And how exactly did she find those organizations that comprised her list at the beginning? Certainly searching via Google and Idealist is a good way to get started. Our job seeker also had other strategies for focusing her search:

One way was looking at an [interesting] organization’s partners, affiliates, etc. listed on that organization’s website. I then researched them and weeded out what I thought was interesting. I also consulted career books specializing in international affairs and jotted down the most relevant to international exchange. Rarely, I was given recommendations of organizations.

I was even more impressed by her moves after hearing these specifics. She set herself up in just the right way to hit the ground running once she moved to DC. And her tactic of first generating email contact with people and then, only after introducing herself and perhaps engaging in some email back and forth, asking for an in-person meeting was very well done. When job seekers ask me how they can generate informational interviews at organizations where they have no contacts, I’ll often tell them to do some research, find a contact at the organization doing a job that looks interesting, and then email that person asking for a meeting. And while I still think this can be an effective tactic, I’ll also admit that it can be odd to receive an email from someone you’ve never met asking if she can come in for a meeting and, by the way, can you advise me on my career? (And no, that’s not a veiled reference to not email me—by all means, keep them coming!).

But our job seeker’s method is much better. It still involves sending a random email to someone you don’t know, but it’s a way to start off slow. Instead of barging right in and saying, “Hi, you don’t know me but can I come meet with you so you can help me get a job?!”, our job seeker’s method allows you to ease in. Do what she did and start by emailing an introduction of yourself—your resume and your professional interests—and then perhaps asking one easy question to which that person can respond quickly and easily (such as, “Can you recommend a partner organization that I should also look into?”**). If the person responds and seems interested in helping you, follow up and when it feels comfortable, ask if you might meet with him or her in person.

This whole process might seem much more time intensive and like much harder work than simply Googling for jobs, finding them, and then applying online—and that’s because it is. I’m not going to pretend that I’ve always done it right or that I’m good at it, but ask any professional who’s been in the field for a few years and I’m sure they’ll tell you that our job seeker’s tactics are far more effective than exclusively relying on the Internets.

**The initial question that sprung to my head here was, “Do you know of any jobs becoming available in your organization or related organizations in the future?” And while this may be the more direct route, the question you really want to ask, it seems like a better tactic to start slower, to not be pushy, to show you are not just contacting this person randomly because you want them to get you a job (and if they can’t, then they’re no use). Rather, you are only seeking information and genuine in your quest to seek out and learn from those already in the fields. This takes much more time than asking the blunt question, but in the end it’s much more effective, I think.

Even Hillary didn’t know where she’d end up

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

At a townhall discussion yesterday at Delhi University, Hillary Clinton gives away the fact that even she couldn’t possibly have planned it all out:

As for myself, well, I feel very grateful that I had the experiences I had. When I was your age and I was the president of my college government, I could have never predicted that I would be standing on this stage as the Secretary of State for the United States, or that I would have run for president, or anything else that has happened in my rather unpredictable life.

Yet another reason job seekers will flock to DC

Monday, July 20th, 2009

Because the economy inside the Beltway is better than most:

At 6.2 percent, the unemployment rate in the D.C. metro region is lower than in any other major metropolitan area in the country — and far below the 9.5 percent national average.

Which is great and all, though I was struck by a sobering fact buried amidst the happy talk of DC as a recession-resistant city:

A 2007 study found that more than one-third of the District’s residents are functionally illiterate, and a large portion of District residents are among the most vulnerable to recession, holding retail and consumer service-type jobs that suffer most.

You often hear DC residents talk about how “no one is actually from DC.” While this does speak to the undeniably transient nature of the city—you can run into people from everywhere in DC—such a statement would only ever be made by those well-to-do professionals who themselves came to DC from somewhere else. It’s easy to forget, when inside the Capitol Hill-K Street-NW professional bubble, that there is a large population of DC residents who in fact were born and raised in DC. It’s even easier to forget (or maybe ignore is the better word?) that too many of those residents haven’t had even close to the same advantages as the highly-educated and well-to-do professionals who migrate to the city.

UPDATE: The Atlantic confirms: DC is the place to be for jobs.



Thursday, July 16th, 2009

A good friend recently quit a stable position at a well-known and reputable organization because his heart just wasn’t in it. He described it to me this way:

I resigned because it doesn’t fulfill me, but I realize, despite my insistence on courage and faith and confidence, this may be the dumbest coherent decision I’ve ever made.

It’s impossible to say whether this was the “right” thing to do. In a similar vein, it’s impossible to say whether passing on a job that won’t completely fulfill you to wait for one that will is a wise move, in a practical sense. But regardless, and despite his own doubts about the decision, I greatly admire his courage to pursue that which will fulfill him the most and thus allow him to make the greatest impact—to go balls out in a way that I don’t know I ever could.