Considering a career as an international development recruiter

By Sophie Edwards

Recruiters and professionals at this year’s Devex Career Forum held in Washington, D.C. Photo by: Devex

Working as a recruiter is one of those jobs which is often overlooked by people hoping to get into the international development industry, but it can be a stimulating and rewarding profession offering opportunities for foreign travel and also entry points into other careers within the sector, according to development recruiters.

Recruiting may also not necessarily be the job you imagine — there are different types of recruiting involving different skill sets and activities, including home office, project and proposal recruitment.

Furthermore, the role of recruitment in international development is often considered more of a business development role than a human resources one and many recruitment positions report to business development or project units instead of HR. In a 2016 Devex survey of recruiters, only 45 percent said that recruiting fell under human resources in their organization.

Devex spoke to five development recruiters to find out who is best suited to the profession, how to get a job in recruitment, the prospects for moving into other work, and the pros and cons of the role.

A good development recruiter

“People often overlook recruiting and don’t see how dynamic it can really be,” said director of talent acquisition at Management Science for Health, Deborah Chamberlin, who says good recruiters tend to be curious, detail oriented, problem-solvers and able to work under pressure. The ability to network is the most important quality, she said, since it is these networks which you will “mine and reach out to” when you have positions to fill.

A passion for development and a desire to work for developing countries are “key aspects” of what makes a good recruiter, according to senior recruitment officer at the World Bank, Roberto Amorosino. He also said flexibility and openness to working on different topics and across different fields, both geographically and thematically, were important. Having some industry knowledge, especially about the type of work you are recruiting for, is necessary in order to create “credibility with clients and potential candidates,” he said.

Being “personable” and knowing how to approach and talk to people who haven’t necessarily applied for the job, which is especially common when recruiting for more senior positions, is crucial, according to Robin Uncapher, senior manager in the international talent management team at Global Communities.

In addition, recruitment is not for the shy and you need to be thick-skinned when candidates you’ve been talking to for weeks end up rejecting a job offer. In those situations “you have to depersonalize, it’s got nothing to do with you,” she said.

The ability to be a “chameleon” and “wear many technical hats” is a must for international development recruiters who need to be able to quickly assess whether a candidate is experienced enough to work on the project, according to Inga Feldi, talent acquisition partner at RTI International.

Types of openings international development recruiters source

International development recruiters generally find themselves recruiting for two kinds of positions — current internal openings within their organization’s headquarters or country offices, and positions on a proposal.  

The former requires a good familiarity with the specific regulations, compliance and documentation needed for hiring people in each specific country, Uncapher said.

Proposal recruitment is a different ballgame, Uncapher explained, and if you want to work for a large implementing organization or consulting firm you need to be good at it. In some organizations proposal recruiters report to HR, but in most large organizations, they report to business development or to international programs, she said.  

Almost all cooperative agreements and contracts funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development over $10 million require a Request for Proposals or Request for Applications to be issued, which calls for organizations bidding for the project to propose key personnel who would work on the project if they win.

Other donors such as the Department for International Development and the European Commission also require bidding organizations to propose key technical leads, consultants and staff that will implement the project. Any candidate put forward needs to sign a letter of commitment saying they will take the job if the bid is successful. This means the recruiter needs to have signed up the candidate and agreed upon a salary, living allowances and other terms sometimes months before they can ever officially offer the position.

The calibre of the proposed staff can win or lose the proposal for an organization, Uncapher said, and so it’s crucial to have strong candidates in place. Bids can require as many as 30 key positions to be filled, including international and local staff, and so the recruiter has their work cut out for them. Added to this is the time pressure associated with live bids, which normally have a two to eight week window. This means working to tight deadlines and under pressure, Uncapher said. It also requires being knowledgeable and confident talking to both clients and applicants.

“You’ve got to be able to thrive under pressure because the fate of the proposal can be in the recruiter’s hands.”

How to get into development recruitment

There are multiple entry routes into development recruitment but specific qualifications are not necessary, according to independent recruiter Laura Wigglesworth, who specializes in hiring executives for global health positions.

“There is no master’s degree that tells me somebody is going to be a good recruiter — you just don’t learn the skills in college, it takes experience and a certain kind of person who likes to talk to people,” she said.

Having said that, there are good training organizations out there which can teach you how to carry out internet searches and approach potential candidates, including AIRS and online recruitment trainer Andy Whitehead, she recommends.

A good way to get experience, especially for recent graduates, is recruiting for a temping agency, Wigglesworth said.

“You’ll learn the basics and you’ll also learn about all the bad things that can happen if you don’t do your homework like checking references, or checking a candidate's’ education history, for example,” she said.

Another technique, especially for those already working for a development organization but not in recruitment, would be to approach the HR director and ask whether they have a specific position that’s proving difficult to fill, Wigglesworth suggested.  If you can find them a good candidate then that will go a long way to proving your worth, she said.

Developing an extensive network of contacts can be a great way to break into the sector, according to Chamberlin, and she recommends attending lots of events and then adding everyone you meet to your LinkedIn profile.

She also said would-be recruiters should try simply calling development recruiters to ask them what they like about the job and how they got into it, and ask if you can spend some time shadowing them at work so you can “listen in on difficult calls, offer to carry out reference checks, and that way you get a head start on the training,” she said.

People with a background in marketing, operations and communications can all made good recruitment candidates, Amorosino said. He also said the World Bank is increasingly hiring people from the private sector, although those with a background working for NGOs and civil society are also valuable.

If responding to a job advertisement for a recruiting position, Amorosino said at the World Bank they are especially looking for people who show they are “flexible and willing to work outside of their comfort zone,” and he recommended illustrating that quality with a story in a cover letter or during interview.

From recruitment to other development roles

Perks of the job: International development recruiting

Working as an international development recruiter is rarely what an aspiring aid worker sets out to do. But here are five reasons why I love working as a recruiter, and why you should consider this often overlooked career path, too.

Working as a recruiter gives you an overview of many different types of work, making it fairly natural to transition into other roles, both within human resources and beyond, Chamberlin said.  She said MSH had recently promoted two recruiters into business development and project management roles.

“People can see it as a limited career path and if that’s the case then they are not in the right company, it should be a springboard from which to grow,” Chamberlin said.

At the World Bank, Amorosino said it’s common for recruiters to take on different roles within human resources such as business development, training, and compensation, and there are also opportunities to go into operations, depending on your skills and interests.  

“It’s often not easy to transfer into another role in development because recruitment is sometimes seen as a ‘corporate service’ rather than a part of the development staff,” Feldi said. However, by “proving yourself” on the job it can be possible to transfer to new business or into project management for projects recruiters have helped staff, she said.

Pros and cons

Recruiting can be stressful but it also offers a lot of variety, according to Chamberlin who summarized her experience by saying, “the highs are high but the lows are low so you’d better be able to handle pressure,” Chamberlin said.  

“Talking to people doing some of most fascinating work out there is one of my favorite parts of the job,” she added, and the experience can “open your eyes to career trajectories you might not ever have known about.” On the downside, spending weeks cultivating a candidate who then ends up declining the offer can be “very disappointing,”  she said.

“Getting paid to talk to interesting people and ask them questions” is one of the major pros of the job for Wigglesworth, who said she enjoys learning a “little bit about every aspect of an organization when interviewing on their behalf,” as indicated by the fact that after 17 years on the job she’s still not bored.

On the negative side, Wigglesworth said the career trajectory for a recruiter within the sector can be limited, usually stopping at director of recruitment within most organizations.

While technological advances are changing the industry, recruiters are still very much in demand, she said. “There are so many cool tools out there now; software which can check references, predictive analytics, video interviews and so on,” she said, but aspects of the job like building relationships and trust with people, problem solving and advising, and the ability to listen, still need the human touch.

The job can be intellectually stimulating, Amorosino said, through working with both external and internal clients and following the latest learning and research about aspects of the field such as labor markets.

However, Amorosino said when he worked for the private sector he had more control over his recruitment searches compared to in the development sector.

Negative stereotypes about the job can be hard to live with according to Uncapher who said recruitment, such as many HR-related jobs, has a “pink collar” reputation as a woman’s job and so is often avoided by men and women who fear it means low pay and prestige.

Having to say no to people is another difficult part of the job, she said, and there is also a lot of administration and paperwork attached to recruitment in international development compared to other sectors.

“You will spend a lot of time asking people to correct biodata forms, send salary verifications and calling references,” she said.

But on the plus side, recruiters learn “the skills that lead to success,” have the opportunity to meet professionals at all levels and work with them as a peer, and talk with people all over the world and “learn about how people in different countries think and feel about things,” she said.

Are you a recruiter? Tell us what you love about the job, how you got into talent acquisition, and what advice you have for others looking to do the same in the comments section below.

Check out all of the recruiting positions open now on the Devex job board here. 

This article was last updated on 7 March 2017

About the author

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Sophie Edwards

Sophie Edwards is a reporter for Devex based out of Washington D.C. and London where she covers global development news, careers and lifestyle issues. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.


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