How volunteering developed Lachlan’s career
1 July 2019 at 7:30 am
Sydney-based construction manager Lachlan James spent two years in the Philippines working with a human rights NGO, where he learnt the skills to take his career in a new exciting direction. Here he shares how his volunteering experience brought him closer to his career goal.
I’d always had itchy feet and intentions to travel and work. I liked the idea of experiencing different places and cultures to see how other people are living.
I went straight into the construction industry out of high school and ended up working in construction management for almost 15 years – longer than I ever intended.
My intention was to transition into development work and I thought a volunteer assignment with the Australian Volunteers Program could be a good way to do that: as a stepping stone into paid international development work.
My volunteer assignment as construction management advisor involved working with a human rights NGO running a housing resettlement program, funded by the Philippines government.
The first beneficiaries to receive housing through the program were people in danger zones – typically flood-prone areas with adjacent running waterways. This later expanded to include other groups of people who were being evicted from their homes, which they had built on government or privately-owned land.
The NGO had some assistance from previous Australian volunteers with advocating the cause and then drafting the legal framework. Now in the delivery phase, the NGO had identified a hole in their skill set in regards to construction management, which was where I came in.
As a volunteer, we’re not just there to do a job; we’re there to train people how to do a job.
The idea is that we leave something behind in addition to building the physical structures: that people are developing skills they can continue to use, long after we’re gone.
I created five different learning modules which included: understanding contract documents, reading plans, progressing claims, site supervision and occupational work health and safety.
These formed the basis for a capacity development intervention, to ensure my colleagues developed the skills needed to manage all the elements of construction after I left. This was great and daunting at the same time! I didn’t have a lot of guidance on what the intervention would look like, and it took time to build up trust and understanding with colleagues and the housing cooperatives.
After delivering the learning modules through a series of workshops and seminars, I was tasked with establishing a labour hire organisation. This eventually turned into a construction contracting organisation, which managed the building of some of these developments themselves.
I developed a business model for the NGO – like a business analyst would do – which was something I’d never done before and was a great opportunity to learn a new skill. We developed the positions and job descriptions on an organisational chart, looked at what skills were available, then as a group we identified the gaps that we would target in training exercises.
In regards to professional development, my assignment lived up to or even exceeded what I was hoping to get out of it.
On assignment I was hoping I’d be able to experience different things, so the business analyst work was great. The experience of running the seminars and workshops was new and exciting. I hadn’t had a lot of training or coaching experience before, so it was great to develop those skills.
After I got back to Australia, I had an interview for a position with Medecins Sans Frontiers. I had applied for a role with them once before and hadn’t got an interview. I don’t think I would have got that interview without the experience with the Australian Volunteers Program. Although I didn’t get that role, I feel positive that my volunteering experience has brought me a little closer to my goal of full-time employment in aid work.
My advice to other people working in construction who might be thinking about doing an assignment, is just do it, we can’t live in fear!
Your profession will always be there, right? You can always come back to your profession at a later date, if you still want to.
The Australian Volunteers Program is an Australian government initiative that supports skilled volunteers in 26 countries as part of Australia’s aid program. For more information about the Australian Volunteers Program, visit australianvolunteers.com.