Maybe you noticed my absence. Well, I can’t say that I had a good reason for it; after all there’s always a lot going on that deserves some writing about. After saying goodbye to New York (for now…), I was job-hunting – a term that sounds much more active than it feels, considering that in reality most of it is passive waiting for response – and worrying about the future, which is actually much more energy- and time-consuming than I anticipated.
As a side job – just for fun (and to be sure to know every detail about the applications I sent out when in rare cases contacted months later by some HR person) – I kept a personal record of my applications. Obviously, those records, which cover four months of intense job search and three months during which I job-hunted “at the side,” are not representative at all. Back in Germany – and having found a job – I wanted to leave this whole time behind me. However, a lot of my friends are currently in the same position as I was a couple of months ago, which brought me back to writing this post after all. It will probably not be the most rigid analysis of the matter and is largely based on my own experiences, but I’ll try to draw some broader lines and questions which I think are relevant to the topic. In general, it is more of a contribution to a growing body of material that’s out there, and which helped me personally a lot during my time of ‘job-hunting’ just by providing the feeling that we’re not alone in this – and that exactly that is actually the (systemic part of the) problem.
Voilà: on the left you can see the results of my little personal database. As you can see, I was quite active during my seven months of job hunting. During the first couple months, I was still working at the UN and later I was busy moving back to Germany but in total I wrote quite a few applications, even though I’m sure there are more active peeps out there.
Anyways, I do not wanna talk about the best ways to write applications, to combine it with networking of all kinds or to up your game with ‘funky’ little special stuff on your CV. Instead I would like to talk about some questions that I encountered during my search and which gave me the impression that what we’re dealing with is bigger and significantly more messed up than the ‘funky details’.
What am I even talking about?
Obviously there is no unified labour market – and as we’re being reminded now almost daily by new unforeseen events (#Brexit, #Trump) we all live in our little filter bubbles. So, even though I know quite a lot of people in different fields who had/have similar problems to mine, I can only talk about the non-profit, public labour market of development cooperation, research and policy. In the graph you can see what that meant for the jobs I applied to. Most of them were posts at NGOs and the rest positions in government agencies , foundations, think tanks and International Organisations. The questions arising may well be due to my choice of employers, but I will ask them anyways; especially since I have the feeling that even just within this sector there are thousands of people out there facing similar questions to the ones I had.
Problem 1: Are my applications even read?
I was looking for jobs on different websites that collect and filter them for you. There’s lots of jobs around actually: the question that constantly bugged me was how many (if any) out of the applications that I produced every week, were actually being read. Why? Most jobs in the public sector have to be advertised, even though they’re already promised to someone else. In the cases I know of, this somebody is someone the employer knows – for whatever reason (often personal/family connections, but also internships or student assistant jobs). This knowledge as well as some digging into academic insight into the tendency of professionals to recruit out of their own social circle (homophilia), led me to really doubt the possibility to achieve anything through my writing applications. Just recently I went to some sort of career event again: one man in the audience asked the speaker basically how one can identify in a job ad, whether the job is REALLY out there or not. Unfortunately, she didn’t give any satisfactory answer to that question – if anyone has one, please let me know!
Problem 2: Should I not have cared so much about flexibility?
Some of you will now be shaking their heads and be like: “that’s pretty basic” – everyone tells you it’s about the networking. Just go out there and meet the people who will then promise you a job and not read all the other applications they receive. I was thinking about that a lot actually, especially since a lot of people have always been telling me that I am in fact a good networking person. So why did I not have any of these networks that would simply let me in. I concluded that in my case it was probably due to the advice I had been getting from different sides since I started middle school, and which was something along the lines of “you need to get a diverse portfolio. Gather experience abroad (in “the field” and in different locations) and then come home to get the job that you’re interested in and which you deserve because of all your gathered experience” This advice was repeated throughout my Bachelor’s and Master’s and even afterwards. It was of course not only this advice that led me to apply to different sectors, do four (unpaid) internships, get scholarships for different jobs and research activities abroad etc. but it always made me feel as if I was also, while doing all these interesting things, working toward my future job. The problem with this approach, however, I only realized when really preparing for my job: while I had had a great time and friends all over the world, I did not have a stable professional network in one specific place (where I could actually get jobs due to visa status requirements). While having been abroad is often enough a requirement for the sector, living in the US with a European passport during job hunting, wasn’t the best choice, neither was having been away from the EU, where I was able to apply, for a total of three years before. While I still don’t regret my choices, I have to admit that realization did still shock me a bit. All this flexibility and mobility that is still advertised as a ‘solution’ on all kinds of jobhunting boards (“go abroad”, “volunteer” etc.) should be taken with a grain of salt.
Problem 3: what kind of experience then?
The other thing I was a bit confused (as in: cynically amused and slightly frustrated) by, was that in basically all cases (also those with an actual formalized process of recruitment (e.g. governments or IOs)), there’s a formal requirement that many won’t be able to pass: almost all entry-level jobs require ‘previous work experience’ between 3-5 years. In most cases, internships do not count, neither does voluntary work, which is, ironically, often all you can get without having work experience of 3-5 years. The most absurd case of that was with the UN. The Junior Professional Officer (JPO) program of the UN is one of the rare possibilities to get a job at the UN before your 40s (average joining age is 41).
However, when I applied for a JPO position with UNWomen, I already knew I did not qualify for it, despite fulfilling all the content requirements (knowledge about the topic and experience in the implementation) because they wanted to see 2 years of work experience (btw. in exactly the field in which I would be working for them which doesn’t seem so entry-level after all), at a maximum age of 35 and explicitly stated:
Relevant internships are counted if they are remunerated. It should be a regular salary. The salary may be low, but a token payment is not considered a salary payment in this regard
This meant that my internship experience with the UN itself (which was funded through a stipend and not paid by the UN) was excluded from the list – absurd enough?! While most internships in the private sector (I hear) are now paid, in the public sector it is still a rare occasion and often more of a ‘token payment’. I read a lot online about people being frustrated with this rather absurd contradiction – does it mean I have to intern in the private sector before I can enter the (worse paid) public sector then?
Problem 4 – How do I fund my experience?
For many people, it’s a struggle to be able to do internships in the public sector. While I was lucky enough to get stipends for most of my unpaid internships, this is definitely not representative. Just recently I saw this post by a guy in one of the facebook groups for International Development jobs. I’m gonna cite him here anonymously:
I completed my Masters in 2014 from one of the top universities in the UK. After that, I completed a 4 month internship with a UN agency in a country of the Global South. Since then, I’ve been applying for jobs in development with no luck, and writing at the same time. I’ve had several articles published, including many in big newspapers in my home country.
The problem is, I can’t really afford to attend expensive conferences to network and do any more unpaid internships. Since I’ve been doing internships and volunteering for so long, I’ve had to take a temp job which keeps me from attending networking events. I’ve only had one international development related interview to date where I got to the second stage – but didn’t have enough experience.
Is there any practical advice anyone can offer me?
This post is not an exception at all. During the time when I was more actively reading in these groups, most of the posts were actually really desperate people looking for jobs who’d done an amazing variety of things already, spoke at least three languages and had worked and studied with “the big names”. As unsurprising as these posts have become to me, so have the answers to them. It turns out to be the same advice that I came to question during my job-hunt: “do more internships, do more volunteering, go to ‘the field’. Someone is gonna hire you eventually through networking”. Maybe… but what if not? After a while and considering my other questions, don’t you have to start to feel like it’s only those people who can afford to work for free until they’re lucky enough?
Problem 5: What’s the deal with privilege?
Last but not least: there is not only a financial gap determining your probability to get a job (ironically btw. in an industry which is supposed to stand for fighting injustices). There is also a gender gap and a cultural gap at finding jobs. We’ve established that most jobs seem to be given out through networking. People coming from the same background they’re applying to (e.g. their parents are from the sector or they went to a fancy school with people whose parents are from the sector etc.) know how to behave in the circles they get into. People coming from developed countries (especially the big donor countries) know how the culture works, what is appropriate and what isn’t in fishing for a job (even for me for example, in the US it was a surprise that coffee dates where you just bluntly message random people and even more bluntly ask them for a job are a legitimate activity for job-hunting). Thus there is a culture gap that affects you if you’re from outside the cultural, financial and educational background of those who hire. And finally: there is a tendency that men are more successful with networking than women due to apparently different ways to network. I’m not making this up guys, it’s real (see the studies cited here). In my experience there are other important factors too (first of all, still most of those hiring are men and there is a tendency to like the ones that are like you. More importantly however, (white) men are still raised to have more self-confidence regarding their career and demanding their rights. I haven’t found a study about it even though I think it’s quite obvious – happy to get some links from you. Anyways, women and other marginalized groups therefore work better through formalized ways of job-hunting, which explains the still (despite efforts to counter it) existing predominance of privilege of all kinds at higher job levels. While this seems to be an established fact, the question is whether it is actually okay, that a sector whose declared goal is to eradicate poverty and inequality in all its forms is based on such privileges itself.
So what does this all really mean? Again, first of all, this is my personal experience. But you’ve already read through the lines that I think I am not alone with this. The answers to the questions I asked above, are still not clear to me. In the end, a lot of it is luck, I guess. However, I still do believe that it should not be that hard for us – and I also think that there are systemic issues behind these barriers that I and many others face. Especially in development, the advice you get often comes from a generation for whom it was true: go abroad to wherever, have a blast and you can start to work for some NGO. There is really good reason for why this is no longer the case (accountability, local ownership etc.), but while the labor market is changing, so should the advice. I guess it’s the fate of any generation to not believe in change regarding the hardships of future generations. And unfortunately, this is just one of the issues; not to mention the broken welfare system, declining salaries and – quite simply, the lack of stable jobs (when I said above that there is a lot of jobs, these are all for 3 years max, some shorter than 6 months). But I do believe that a change in mentality by those in power would already go a long way in identifying and fixing some of these problems.
One day, when I’ll be (maybe) sitting in this hiring seat, I hope I’ll do it differently…
One day! And you can hold me accountable to this post!