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Dublin: 9 °C Wednesday 22 October, 2014

Careers clinic: A spell of volunteering can transform your job skills

As survey finds that one in five people who take a break to volunteer abroad end up changing careers, two volunteers speak about their ‘transformative’ experiences.

Image: mangostock via Shutterstock

LAST YEAR 3,000 Irish white-collar professionals volunteered to work in shanty towns, war zones and famine-stricken wildernesses across the globe.

Some were involved with programmes such as construction, strategic development, IT and teaching, while others provided medical services or acted as bodyguards for human rights activists.

Undoubtedly the chance to give back to the world in tandem with travelling to far-flung parts is an exciting opportunity, particularly for anyone seeking a career break or wondering what to do post-retirement.

However, according to a recent survey of returned volunteers by the international development charity Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), it doesn’t end there. Many returned volunteers often report that their time overseas was ‘transformative’ or a ‘turning point’ in their lives, with almost half of those surveyed reporting they had developed better leadership abilities and team working skills, while nearly a third of respondents said they were now better at their job.

A fifth had changed careers altogether.

“The most important impact of volunteering is always on the people we work with in poor countries – working in areas like health, education and developing secure livelihoods,” says VSO Chief Executive Marg Mayne. “But it’s important to recognise that volunteers benefit too, stretching themselves professionally and picking up new skills and confidence.”

After many years working as a self-employed management and organisational development consultant, Olive Fives, 48, decided to take the plunge and has recently returned from spending a year in a small village near Calcutta, India.

“I went for a mixture of reasons, the main one being I’d always wanted to contribute. That said, it was a huge decision to go and I was terribly nervous about it. I’d spent a long time building up my own consultancy business in Cork and leaving meant having no security of employment when I returned,” she says.

However, I’m absolutely delighted I did it. Yes, it means starting over again but it’s been more than worth it. I believe my communication and team-working skills benefited hugely from the constant interaction with different cultures.

“Prior to leaving I’d been working solo but in India I had to readjust to living and working full-time within an organisation. Moreover, because women have less status in India, I definitely had to work harder on my influencing skills in order to convince people I had a brain, that it was useful, and that they could tap in to it.

“I wasn’t shy before going to India but it was great to have experienced that because it means now I’m never fazed by seniority or people who think they’re more important than me. I lived a whole year being a ‘lesser citizen’ but still having to do my work every day. These days I feel much more measured in my approach to others and more accepting that one has to prove oneself first.

“It also gave me a lot of time to think. I came back refreshed with a much clearer idea of what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. As well as focussing on my business, I’m also doing a PhD.

“Would I recommend it to others?”

“Yes, definitely. People often say I was great to give up a whole year of my life but I never felt like I gave up anything. Of course, I missed my family and friends but I gained so much from it – at least five times more than I put in. It was enriching on so many levels. I came back feeling like it was one of the best things I ever did.”

Mary Knox, a retired primary teacher from Waterford, has just returned from volunteering in Cambodia for two years. “I found skills learned as a student teacher many years ago are exactly what developing countries need. In the average school electricity is unknown, slates and chalk or paper and crayons are luxuries used with enthusiasm by children previously expected to sit quietly and just listen. Laughter comes easily to the children here – it was heart-warming to see how they enjoyed the old playground games like, ‘What’s the time Mr Wolf?”

But more than this, Knox found a whole new lease of life in Cambodia.

While I’m not saying it was all fun and games, and I did miss the comforts of home from time to time, volunteering has been a memorable experience that I can honestly recommend as an anti-ageing exercise.

It’s easy to forget your age when you travel by motorbike or play hopscotch! Also, I expected younger volunteer colleagues would stick together socially but it was a lovely surprise to discover that nobody noticed age and right from the start I was included in all activities.”

  • VSO are hosting a ‘Meet VSO’ event in Dublin this Saturday (16 February) and also in Belfast (9 March), where they will explain the application process and the type of professionals they are looking to recruit. This event is free but registration is required. To find out more, click here.

Elizabeth Hutcheson is a career consultant with www.SliNuaCareers.com, who offer CV preparation, interview training and mock interview services. They have offices in Dublin, Galway, Limerick and Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo. For a Free CV Health Check Assessment, click HERE.

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