Wednesday 28 August 2013

Paid Social Work Abroad: Getting Your Foot in the Door

One of the biggest myths for social workers just starting out is there are a wide variety of international humanitarian jobs for the taking. The reality is that getting paid work abroad is often very difficult, even if you're applying for basic entry-level jobs. One of the reasons is that many grassroots organizations try and mine the local population for talented workers. According to the Guardian, 75 million young people in Africa are unemployed and unemployment in many of the Asian and South American nations where humanitarians work can reach 40 percent - hence it makes sense why government agencies employ their own people. But non-governmental grassroots organizations can employ people from all around the world. The competition is steep, but earning a position at one of these organizations can change your life.

Chilemo - Workshop for Peace Corps Volunteers - November 2010

1. Volunteer Work

There's no denying that the single best way to launch an international humanitarian career is start as a volunteer. The Peace Corps offers opportunities in 139 different countries, plus a living stipend, vacation days, and a transitional payment after your two years of service have ended. But it's far from the only organization where you can find volunteer work. If you're planning on competing for paid positions later on, cultural experience puts you ahead of the game. And the contacts you make as a volunteer can lead to paid work, especially if you're volunteering with a smaller organization. Most international aid workers begin as unpaid staff, and the work can be incredibly rewarding. When you apply for a paying job in the future, they will specify how much international experience is required, and volunteering is by far the easiest way to gain it.

2. Develop Your Skills

The most meaningful skill you'll need in international work is understanding - understanding a culture, and understanding the nature of extreme poverty. It's important to maintain a level of humility and willingness to cooperate as you assess the particular needs of a certain region. Usually, social work abroad involves a lot of mentoring and teaching valuable skills to locals, and expatriate workers need to be able to do that without talking down to local people or trying to do everything for them. Other jobs include managing a budget, grant writing, and fundraising. There's very little demand for the counseling side of social work in countries where people are just struggling to survive. The roles of social workers are more managerial, which is part of why they can be extremely competitive.
Peace Corps Armenia sign

3. Looking for Work

If you have the experience and credentials to look for work abroad, you have to be prepared that it might take a long time to find the right opportunity. Researching organizations and forming contacts is key. Your resume and cover letter should be humble but also highlight your specific skills and how they can apply to the position. It's worth it to look for smaller organizations that applicants aren't necessarily flocking to, as long as these organizations are reputable. The growth of grassroots citizens groups provides a wealth of opportunities for expansion, and you might have a more fulfilling time in that environment than competing with candidates from many different countries for the flashier jobs.

Social work is a very broad industry. Though people often talk about the stress and depression associated with being a social worker, humanitarian aid workers are most likely to have the exact opposite experience. Even if you spend years volunteering before you land a paid job, you won't regret it. The international community needs the skills of professionals who are open to addressing humanity's most basic needs. Who can say no to literally changing the world?

Brett Harris volunteers for several humanitarian organizations. If social work interests you as a career check out the available programs and their rankings at the Top Online MSW Program Rankings website.

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