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Interview – Esker Copeland, Internship Coordinator at CARE USA

Esker Copeland coordinates CARE USA’s US and international internship and fellowship programs. He has a background in international affairs and development, and a master’s degree in public health. His career background includes work in US non-profits liaising with universities and corporations to provide support for education programs. I asked him to talk about what he sees from a recruiting perspective and his view on careers in humanitarian work:

Nick: You deal with a lot of people in your role who are starting out in their careers, thinking that they might want to work in international relief and development – how do you select people who you think have potential for your program?

Esker: Well lots of folks have potential to do the job, but CARE is very competitive – we only have a very small number of internship and fellowship opportunities available annually, so we put some thought into our philosophy of recruiting, especially at the junior level of interns and fellows. We have to look at what the ‘win’ is for CARE in developing this program – one of the main reasons for us to do this is to develop a pipeline of future talent who will be future leaders in the field of international development and humanitarian aid. With that as our philosophical starting point we realized we are best off investing in people who really do have this as a career track. There’s a ton of folks who just want to do good stuff, and that’s great, there are a ton of ways that you can support CARE’s work, there are a ton of ways that you can get involved with international aid efforts without being an international aid worker. You need to make that distinction with young people who are interested in this field. We’re looking for people who are serious about being on the track to being an international aid worker – you look for people who have worked for other international NGOs, if they haven’t worked for international NGOs then they have done significant travel in developing countries, or worked in developing countries, lots of people we take are returned Peace Corps volunteers. Some people haven’t had an opportunity to work in developing countries, but have demonstrated a commitment to working with international populations here in the US – for example here in Atlanta we have a significant refugee population – there are a lot of NGOS focussed on refugee health and services, so I look for an indication that this person is really serious about setting this as a career path. Previous INGO work, at least three months experience in a developing country are a starting point, and language skills are very important too.

Nick: That covers some of the intent, some overseas experience and language, what about the characteristics of people you look for, are there particular types of people or attributes you are looking for?

Esker: I divide the competencies I look for broadly into two categories – soft and hard. Hard competencies for me are things like analytical skills, proven research skills, program and project management skills would all be good. I look for people with quantitative analysis skills, SPSS or Epi Info if it’s health related. Grants management is another hard skill that is essential for a person who wants to get into project management.

Softer skills are things like an ability to work with diverse cultures. Flexibility – the ability for a person to adapt to changing environments. Changing priorities and changing contexts that happen pretty rapidly when you work in an organization that is so spread out and that has so many different programmatic or sectoral focuses. One of the things that I think is a shortcoming of the American education system is that it doesn’t train everybody to work with people from different cultures.

Nick: Do you have any tips for people on choosing a graduate degree or a graduate school?

Esker: You have some schools that are more highly ranked in certain areas than others, but just because a person went to one of those schools doesn’t mean that they are going to be a good fit for CARE, actually I often find it to be the opposite. I often find that people from some of the smaller programs can be more involved in their research interests and get more direct input and mentoring from someone who can really help them develop their research interest. It’s case by case though – my goal is to not let the school itself be the driver of whether or not a student is selected for an internship. Having said that though, I do look at what school you went to – for example, you went to Johns Hopkins School of Public Health? I know automatically that you probably have a pretty good background in global health just because they are a good school. To pick another area, Washington DC has a group of great schools that focus on international affairs, but Seattle also has a lot of expertise in certain areas. It’s case by case. Any student at any school has the potential to develop their CV and to develop themselves in a way that makes them an attractive candidate. I just think that the tracks are set up better at some of the more notable schools. If you look at resumes from Hopkins for example, they all look alike, they will all have done some clearly focused research around global health and development and they will have had a practical work experience around one of their research interests for about three months at the minimum in a developing country. The reason is that the program is structured to take the student through a series of development experiences that help them to mature as a professional, whereas in smaller schools its not always as structured and so the student who stands out at a smaller school will have done that themselves.

Nick: So to get an internship with CARE someone already needs to have at least three months interning overseas during their graduate studies – how do people get that first opportunity overseas?

Esker: It’s very difficult, and honestly, the people with more resources tend to have better shots. It’s something that bothers me professionally and personally that that is the case – the truth of the matter is that the person who comes from a wealthier family and went to a school with a larger endowment will probably have an advantage getting into the field of international development. With many of the opportunities out there to build a resume you need the resources to finance yourself getting to a developing country. I think Peace Corps is probably the thing that is most often suggested to people because it is a way around the Catch 22 that you need some international experience to get accepted to any program. Peace Corps is one of the few places that takes folks who have no prior overseas experience, trains them for a little while, pays a stipend, and by the time they return they’re pretty comfortable and confident in their abilities to live and work in developing countries.

We’ve created and piloted a couple of exposure programs that target both undergraduates and people from minority backgrounds, just trying to expose more people to the field of international development but those are pretty small initiatives. I often encourage people to get involved with organizations that focus internationally but don’t necessarily involve travel internationally – there is a lot of work that can be done from the US in international development.

Nick: Where do people go after their internship with CARE?

Esker: I’d say about 5-10% of interns go on to work in some further capacity with CARE. It’s a small percentage. Outside of CARE though I’ve noticed that people go on to do very well – some go on to work with smaller NGOS, the CARE internship experience is very very valuable for a person who is entering the field of international development. Because the technical services available here at our headquarters in Atlanta are relatively small, the interns actually do some very high level work at CARE. There are really no typical internships, but people do a huge range of things, an example might be someone who works with our economic development unit working on value chain issues, helping small farmers or entrepreneurs create value chains to get their products to market – they might do some research, case studies, data analysis, human interest stories, monitoring and evaluation, its very broad. Analytical skills are very important – we’ve had interns who have gone out to the field to do assessments, monitoring and evaluation, resource development, you name it. Another example of a program interns work on is our clean water program in Latin America – interns there go out and work with communities, help raise resources, do research, it’s very broad – literally interns support any function that CARE has. We have about 8 program sectors we focus on, but then there are the areas that interns typically don’t think about, we have this entire team of people who do program support – the back-office functions of HR, procurement, finance, IT, all of the things that would occur in any business. We often have difficulty recruiting in areas like organizational performance management for example, or working with our finance team. Students with those skill-sets generally gravitate to for-profit work.

Nick: How do students typically fund their internships?

Esker: In the US our internships are paid, abroad they are generally not, although it does vary. Most of the people we recruit are funded through their university – they have funds that are set aside for international non-profit internships. Unfortunately this means that students at Ivy League schools, or schools with larger endowments are at a real advantage. I look at a certain school on a resume and I know that that student is going to be applying for a grant of between $2500 and $5000 to support them. That will probably cover most of their costs for a three months assignment overseas. My goal then, even if the student is getting money is to figure out how CARE can offset any in-country costs in addition to what is covered. There is a value to CARE in hosting interns, and there is a value to the intern – we’re trying to make that exchange as equitable as possible. We work with some foundations to provide scholarships sometimes, particularly to minority students, but it’s not a large number. Here in Atlanta its become a bit easier because students don’t have to worry about travel if we can recruit them locally.

Nick: We’ve been talking mostly about graduate students – do you have any advice for mid-career folks wanting to make the switch to international development?

Esker: I do run into these folks at career fairs, generally its about figuring out what the transferable skills are that you’ve developed earlier that can be used in the international development world. I would consider myself to be one of these mid-career switchers, although I didn’t go too far down the path of for-profit work before realizing that this was what I wanted to do, so I went back to school, re-tooled, and was fortunate, to be honest. What I would say is that it is difficult to make the switch. The people who I’ve seen make the switch most effectively, honestly, are in the program support functions, for example, one of our Senior Vice Presidents worked for Bell South most of his career. We have a lot of need for auditors, that and risk management – those really hard business skills that people develop in the for-profit world that area as useful and as applicable to the not-for-profit world.

When you start talking about technical program areas though, that’s where it gets difficult – when you’re talking about someone who maybe has worked in a commercial bank for five or ten years and now they want to work in international economic development? Just because you have expertise in business banking doesn’t make you an expert in economic development – its literally a whole different world. It can be a hard transition – often it involves going back to school, or enrolling in the Peace Corps, even later in life, and that person also needs to be willing to take a really major pay-cut and most people frankly aren’t willing to do that. I’m not sure that I would advise most people to do it – those people who have a real passion and drive to do this will make the transition, but for many people there may be better ways for them to support global development than by becoming an international aid worker.

Nick: What about people transitioning from the armed services into relief and development – is that something that you see a lot of?

Esker: Well, the one area where I do see some of that is in security management – CARE has regional security advisors in each region of the world who think about security of our staff as we operate in increasingly insecure environments. On the whole though, I don’t see a lot of transition – the two seem to be pretty separate worlds.

Nick: One of the more controversial pieces of advice that I hear in seeking experience overseas is for people to simply show up in a developing country and look for experiences on the ground there – how would you see that option?

Esker: I look at tons of resumes, and it works! From what I’ve seen it’s not as far fetched as it may sound. I’ll tell you why I think it works – I think that a person with a bachelor’s degree from a good school and some really good analytical skills, and good writing skills is an asset in development work. The pool of people who are available on the local job market varies significantly from country to country. Right now for example in Haiti it’s very difficult to get qualified local HR, finance or IT staff. A person with good finance skills who wants to do some good and lives in Haiti, or shows up at an NGO office in Haiti, that person has a pretty good chance of getting hired. I see young people doing that all the time, I get calls and emails from CARE country directors about this all the time, and they love this. I might get an email from a country director in East Africa for example saying “hey I met this great student who is taking a year off from her studies at Harvard and is going to be in the country for a whole year and wants to work for CARE, can you help me put her on payroll for nine months?” If that same person had tried to get that same opportunity by writing from the US, well, it’s a really competitive world, there would be a lot of hurdles. By showing up at the front door, handing the country director their resume, seeming smart and saying “I’m here anyway for a year, I live down the street, you don’t have to pay for my travel here, you don’t have to pay for my house and I want to work for you” – my country directors love that – it works. Its risky though. I guess it seems more risky if you have family responsibilities.

Nick: Any other tips you have for people looking for work?

Esker: One thing I would say is be clear about your career trajectory as early as possible. A lot of this field is based on technical expertise, and if you want to be a technical expert in some field making that determination as early as possible is helpful. You need a long track record in a field like logistics, girls education, whatever it is in order to become a senior technical advisor. Another track in this field is those people who want to be project managers – again, as early as you can you need to begin honing that experience, becoming a project coordinator or program assistant, getting experience. The clearer you are in your long term career the easier it is to build you resume. I’d also emphasize the huge need for support functions in international relief and development – HR, finance, IT, all those things are needed.

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