June 2019

Giving back as a professional

  • By Australian Volunteers Program

A case study with an AusIMM member shows how international volunteering helps build skills – and lets you discover new ones. See current volunteering opportunities for resources professionals.

For more than 60 years, the Australian Volunteers Program has been helping skilled Australians take their knowledge and abilities to developing countries as part of the Australian Government’s aid program.

Volunteers have described their experiences as ‘inspiring’, ‘fulfilling’ and ‘life-changing’ – and an excellent way to ‘give back’ using their professional skills. 

Today the program operates in 26 countries across the Indo-Pacific region, including countries with growing extractives programs such as Myanmar, Laos and Mongolia. It’s this diversity of both countries and assignments that’s one of the highlights of the program according to its Director, Zoë Mander-Jones.

‘We attract Australians from a diverse range of professions, from right across the country, and each bring their own unique experience. Common among so many of them are the meaningful relationships they make on assignment, and what they gain personally and professionally.’

The Australian Volunteers Program partners with more than 700 organisations across all sectors: government, private, non-government and community. What binds these organisations is the support an Australian volunteer can provide to help them achieve their own development goals. 

The program is based around an ethos of locally-led and locally-driven development. Volunteers are there to help organisations build their capacity for the long-term – well after an assignment ends and the volunteer returns home. 

In turn, as volunteers support development in their partner organisations, they are also developing their own skills in coaching, mentoring, problem solving, relationship-building and resilience.

‘Volunteers are incredibly diverse in terms of age, background and expertise.’

‘So many employers in Australia are looking for those skills. If you’re keen to develop these attributes, there’s nothing like an assignment in a developing country that throws challenges at you every day.’ 

Volunteers are incredibly diverse in terms of age, background and expertise. While all assignments require some level of professional experience, volunteers range from people at the start of their careers to those that have worked for decades and are at the top of their game. 

‘We find that no matter their age or skills, there are generous Australians who say: “I’ve got this experience, I’ve got this expertise, and I want to share it with colleagues and organisations across the region.”’

Ultimately, it’s a significant decision to take on the challenge of volunteering overseas. Assignments range in duration from one to 24 months, with most assignments requiring a 12-month commitment. 

Financially, volunteers are supported with a modest living and accommodation allowance to ensure they are not out of pocket and can focus on delivering impact while on assignment. Volunteers also have access to health and emergency services, a dedicated in-country support team, and comprehensive training before departure. Partners and children can join too.

For decades, the Australian Volunteers Program has helped Australians from all backgrounds build careers, find new interests, and grow relationships, all while supporting international development. Ultimately, becoming an Australian volunteer is a unique opportunity for personal and professional growth.

‘At the end of the experience, those cultural exchanges, those relationships, and that professional development – it’s just so rewarding,’ says Zoë.

Digging for new experiences: four years volunteering in Laos

‘I wish I had done this 20 years ago.’

In 2015, John Sheppard MAusIMM switched from the banks of Perth’s Swan River to the banks of the Mekong in Vientiane, Laos, when he went on an assignment with the Australian Volunteers Program.

John initially signed up for six months as a Monitoring and Evaluation Advisor with the Ministry of Energy and Mines, bringing more than five decades of private sector experience, many at the executive level, to the Lao Government.

‘I felt like it was a way I could give back and share my knowledge. Coming from the private sector, I felt my background and understanding of how companies think and act would be valuable to a government in a developing country.’

His initial volunteer role had such a positive impact that John ended up completing four assignments over four years. The assignments were in different divisions for the same ministry, giving him a chance to hone his skills over a broad range of areas. 

As a volunteer, John got the opportunity to experience everything from conducting a seminar on bonds with major banks and other ministries, to supporting ASEAN meetings, and developing a strategic minerals policy for Laos in partnership with the World Bank. He worked with the Ministry of Energy and Mines on a major revision of the Law on Minerals, and even collaborated on speeches in English for the Prime Minister.

‘I had written speeches before, but never for politicians – that was new and interesting, and gave me a wonderful view of Lao culture.’

One of John’s most rewarding experiences was witnessing the professional growth in his colleagues. He worked closely with many colleagues at the Ministry of Energy and Mines, mentoring them with advice on the mining industry, and supporting them with their business and common English.

Many co-workers built up a strong rapport, and John supported a younger colleague as he rose from an entry level role to working in international relations and as a confidant to organisational leaders. This young man has recently been awarded an Australia Awards Scholarship.

‘I’ve been able to get great satisfaction from seeing the people around me develop and improve. Volunteering has made me a more satisfied person.’

Experienced volunteer and AusIMM member John Sheppard.

Australian volunteers are uniquely placed to share their professional experience in developing countries. They don’t need to have an extensive career before volunteering but they do need to have a willingness to work cross-culturally and appreciate the challenges of working in another country.

According to John, while he has a unique set of technical skills, the most important thing for his role was understanding how to work with people from different backgrounds.

‘One of the biggest advantages of the Australian Volunteers Program is that volunteers pick up on soft skills. I always thought mine were good, but I have to say I learned a lot more volunteering in a government department in Laos.’

John encouraged potential resources sector volunteers to look at available assignments online and to take a broad view of the expertise they could bring to varying roles – not just ones that match the tasks they’re doing in their extractives industry job today. 

‘Remember, you have other skills. The great thing about the partner organisations that the program supports is that they discover and take advantage of your skills – and we all have different ones.’

‘I’ve enjoyed the program and would absolutely recommend it. It broadens your life skills and horizons, and makes you much more aware of how other people live. You also come to appreciate Australia a lot more.’

John is still in touch with his colleagues in Laos and continues to help out whenever he can. In his remaining spare time, he has taken up making jewellery using metal clay, a sustainable recycled product of the mining process.

After nearly 50 years in resources, John too might have been on the path to being an end-product of the industry. Instead he’s reshaped himself and his career.

‘While I have had a long career, I still think I have a lot to give. If I had stayed in the private sector, I might be out to pasture now. Instead I am here in international development, and my experience is valued.’ 

Current volunteering opportunities for resources professionals

Take your mining knowledge to Myanmar’s capital Nay Pyi Taw for three months as a Mining Consultant at the Myanma Gems Enterprise, part of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation.

Help address the environmental and social impacts of the gems and jade sector as an Environmental, Social and Safety Specialist at the Myanma Gems Enterprise in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar.

Volunteer in Vientiane, Laos for seven months, developing the team’s technical skills and supporting a feasibility study as a Mining Mentor at the Research Institute for Energy and Mines.

Share your technical knowledge of mining engineering and geology as a Trainer (Mining Sector) at the Myanma Gems Enterprise, Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar.

To learn more about the Australian Volunteers Program, view more than 100 roles currently available and apply, visit www.australianvolunteers.com.

Image: gowithstock/Shutterstock.com.

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