A Short Primer Fundsforngos.org - March 2012
Fundsforngos.org receives many questions about NGO careers, especially about finding a job at the UN, so we decided to prepare a short primer on this topic for fundsforngos.org users - mostly focused on professional-level positions.
First things first - competition for UN jobs is fierce and the chance of landing a job very small. That said - many people do succeed and a better understanding of "how it works" will help.
The UN system is a very large bureaucracy made up of the UN Secretariat, and various programmes, funds, and agencies, most of which have their own human resources/personnel departments. Identifying where to start is difficult, but this primer attempts to provide some direction.
Job Categories and Types
There are many distinct categories of UN workers: staff vs. non-staff (consultants); national vs. international (expatriate); paid vs. unpaid; administrative (general) vs. professional. The UN uses letter grades to designate most paid staff positions: G (general); P (professional); D (directors); FS (field service) and N (national). Non-staff workers (e.g. consultants, interns, volunteers) go by a variety of names and designations
Your background (i.e. age, education, experience, nationality) determine which staff or non-staff category present the best entry-point for success. Note that moving between categories can either be near impossible (e.g. from general to professional or national to international) - or create opportunity (e.g. from consultant to staff).
Most staff work on fixed term (FT) contracts which confer full benefits (e.g. allowances, pension plan, vacation days), are often competitively recruited and difficult to obtain. Though the human resource department might administer recruitment of FTs, the final decision is typically made by the managers in the office supervising the post. (Hint: networking with these managers is critical). As an interim solution for personnel gaps the UN often recruits temporary staff (for a maximum of 24 months) on temporary fixed term (TFT) contracts. Though temporary, these jobs confer full benefits.
The UN uses scores of (mostly professional level) consultants for short-term defined projects. Reports indicate that many workers at the UN are consultants (perhaps some 20-40%), with some performing regular staff functions for years. Consultants are not considered UN staff and in general do not receive benefits. Consultants are most often hired directly by the office that needs the consultant. Only some consultant positions are advertised and the process is often opaque. (Hint: many consultants land their first gig by networking). Consultancies are seen by many as a first step in landing a staff position.
The UN volunteer programme (UNV) usually requires a good deal of experience and education. Many UNVs are from developing countries and are hired in the country of origin. Pay and benefits are less than regular UN staff, but still afford a good quality of life. The UNV selection process is reported to run from transparent to questionable, depending on the country in which the selection takes place. It is also possible to volunteer with various UN agencies directly, although this is non-paid and rarely advertised. To volunteer you need to contact the department where you wish to work directly indicating your interest - bypassing human resources. Some see a volunteer position as a foot in the door that can lead to a consulting or staff job.
Unpaid internships are another way to get a taste of the UN and a foot in the door. Most parts of the UN have a structured internship programme run by the human resource department - for which you have to apply. Some interns negotiate their internship directly with their office of interest, bypassing the human resources department. (Hint: if you want to intern in a specific office contact them directly.) Though interns typically agree not to seek employment with their assigned UN agency - there seem to be exceptions made to this rule.
The Junior Professional Officer (JPO) Programme (a.k.a. Associate Experts) is a 3 year employment programme funded by select donor governments. To be eligible you typically need to be 25-32 year sold, from an eligible country, with 2-4 years of experience and a Masters Degree. JPOs are often selected by the Foreign Ministry in the sponsoring country. (Hint: Some countries sponsor JPOs from developing countries - check relevant websites). Some UN agencies also run a Young Professionals Programme which are very competitive but worth checking.
UN staff vacancies are regularly advertised but not all vacancies show up in one place - so checking different websites pays off.
Competition for advertised vacancies is fierce so network with the people in the organization/office that is of interest.
Many opportunities are not widely advertised (e.g. consultancies) and require networking to find out.
Consulting, volunteering, and interning will give you an "inside look" and improve your chances.
Finding a job at the UN can be difficult and time consuming, but take note that many have done so successfully before you.