Building transferable skills in development

This is approximately the point in the job-search cycle where many people get discouraged.  It’s the old experience-and-hiring paradox: you know what you’d like to work on, but you don’t have any experience, so no one will hire you, so you can’t gain experience.  In the development field, unpaid internships are often used to get some initial experience, but there’s still significant competition for them, and going without pay often isn’t feasible for people with student loans or other financial responsibilities.  The next few posts in this series will cover three approaches to gaining relevant skills and experience for a development career: building transferable skills; gaining experience abroad through unpaid internships; and what to do if you can’t forego a salary while switching careers.

Everyone who’s interested in working in development should build up a set of transferable skills, which can be accomplished even while unemployed or working outside the development field.  I would divide these skills broadly into five categories: sector-specific knowledge, languages, writing, statistics, and technology.  Learning about the various sectors of development was covered in the last post, so I won’t revisit it here.  You likely have a sense of which of the other categories are most interesting to you.  Keep building on whatever skills you already have there, but consider learning about another category as well.  The more you can do for an employer, the better an application is likely to be considered.

As discussed briefly in the last post, professional proficiency in a widely spoken language is very helpful.  If you studied a language a while ago, or can speak easily but find reading difficult, start re-engaging with it by reading newspapers and listening to the radio.  (Search for “streaming radio” or “podcasts” in the language.)  Try to find materials on the sector that interests you in that language to pick up some of the specialized vocabulary.  If possible, try your hand at writing in the language and find someone who’s fluent to comment on it.  And if you only speak English, but are committed to learning another language, go for it!  Just remember that it’s unlikely to count in your favor on your CV until you can hold a professional conversation in it.

I’ve found strong writing skills to be valuable in my career, but often not in the ways I would have expected.  Surprisingly, I’ve spent much more time editing other people’s reports than writing my own, and much of the writing I have done has been in the form of emails or manuals for internal use only.  Very little of it has been persuasive writing for a policy audience or the general public.  All of that said, every organization can use strong writers.  If you feel that you’re a good writer, keep practicing by blogging or writing op-eds (which is also a good exercise in concision).  Offer to edit others’ work, and ask others to edit yours.  Practice giving criticism constructively, and accepting it cheerfully.  And keep a few different writing samples on hand – perhaps one short article or memo, and one longer academic paper.

Statistical analysis is increasingly a feature of development work, even for traditional aid donors and major NGOs.  The thing to keep in mind here is that there are very different levels of proficiency required for different tasks.  Some organizations may simply need to take a list of all the districts in a country and calculate the percentage of them which already have secondary schools, which can be done in Excel.  Other organizations, especially those doing impact evaluations, need people to do more sophisticated analysis in Stata.  Qualifying as a data analyst at a place like IPA or the World Bank is fairly difficult because it takes several years of specialized training (before you even apply for the job) in three subjects: economics, to understand why research questions are being asked; statistics, to understand how the data is being analyzed; and a statistical software package like Stata or R, to carry out the analysis.  You could conceivably cover most of these subjects in evening courses or online, and practice running regressions in R (which is free and open source) using World Bank data, but it would take a real commitment.  Instead, if you want to build up some analytical skills but don’t have a background in these topics, I would focus on Excel.  Take an introductory statistics course using the software, as well as a general introduction-to-Excel course which includes pivot tables, graphing and creating budget templates.  Being able to write a well-documented, easily-readable budget in Excel is a skill too few people have.

Finally, positions in graphic design or web design are increasingly common in development organizations (to no one’s surprise).  In smaller organizations, this type of position is often integrated into the communications team, so building up some experience in writing and social media could be useful.  If you already have some programming experience, I would look into designing apps for mobile phones as well.  Mobile coverage is widespread in low income countries (in 2011, half the people in Africa already had a mobile) and there’s a huge push to create apps and use SMS to provide development services.

I’ll close in noting that this isn’t an exhaustive list of transferable skills.  Experiences as disparate as managing a database, designing a survey, urban planning, grants management, or industrial design can all be of interest to development organizations.  Managing a team of 10 or more people is quite useful as well. If you have this type of more specialized skill, you’re probably a bit farther along in your career, and it should be easier to show potential employers that this is relevant to them.