Dot Bombs and World Events Push Increases at Peace Corps

January 1, 2002       Matthew Sinclair      

The news of technology-based companies weathering a rough economic storm seems to hit the papers every day. Personal computer-maker Gateway announced it was slashing nearly a quarter of its global workforce. Toshiba announced 17,000 layoffs globally. Lucent Technologies could go down as one of the most colossal corporate collapses in history.

And, many dot-coms have vanished into virtual unreality.

Though such changes are obviously difficult for the numerous people affected, they also create a possible resource of highly skilled professionals, many of whom are only a few years out of college, re-examining what they want to be when they grow up.

The Peace Corps, the government agency that places volunteers in developing countries, has been targeting these people in tech-heavy regions.

In San Francisco, in particular, has begun a marketing campaign on trains and busses to capture the attention of the curious commuter.

Said Dennis McMahon, the public affairs officer for the San Francisco office of Peace Corps, “In February, everyone was recognizing that the whole dot-com industry was slowing down. We thought there was a very strong potential volunteer pool represented there.”

McMahon said between 40 and 45 percent of Bay Area recruits are from the technology or dot-com world. The people who took up employment in those fields were often looking for creative jobs where they could problem-solve, he added. “When you look closer at them, many of these people were drawn to the dot-com industry because it was an unconventional work environment,” he said. “Out of that, we decided we wanted to subtly or not so subtly remind these people to consider Peace Corps as an option.”

Moreover, the number of active applications is up 72 percent compared to the same time last year. And during October, McMahon said, “this office received over 920 inquiry calls,” compared to between 500 and 600 in a typical month.

Of course, October, 2001 was not a typical month, coming on the heels of the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington and coupled with the nation’s economic struggles. “It’s hard to filter it out,” McMahon said of whether the rise is related to the economy or the attacks. “A lot of the people coming from that place of perhaps being downsized are also feeling a greater need to participate on the world scene.”

The agency’s approach has been largely relegated to contacting the human resources department of a downsizing company and asking whether it would distribute Peace Corps literature or to advertise in alternative weekly newspapers.

Laura McClure is the recruiter who deals with most of the high-tech applicants in the San Francisco office. “I’m marrying a (computer) geek, so everyone seemed to think that made me the expert,” she said, laughing. McClure explained that many of the applicants view the industry changes as a turning point in their own lives, whether the Peace Corps would serve as a respite from corporate life or as a way to completely change.

“A number of them want to move into nonprofit management,” she said, adding that if her applicants haven’t volunteered locally, she requires them to get community service experience. “I think that the number of people coming into Peace Corps, this is helping all other nonprofits in the Bay area.” While Boston and the Washington, D.C., area have targeted the dot-commers and IT people as well, the Silicon Valley area has been leading the pack. “So far our office, which covers the Mid-Atlantic region, hasn’t tried San Francisco’s ‘dot-com, dot-gone?’ campaign,” said Paige Risser, a public affairs specialist in northern Virginia. “But, after recent layoffs at AOL and other high-tech firms in the area, we’re considering it.”

She added that her office, like most Peace Corps offices, focuses much of its time on college students and as the new school year opened, they remained their primary target.

“We have not gone out directly to companies that are closing or downsizing,” said Kate Raftery, the acting associate director for volunteer recruitment and selection, based in Peace Corps’ Washington, D.C., headquarters. That said, she’s aware that the San Francisco office has been actively pursuing people leaving the IT, dot-com and e-commerce industries.

Raftery said the agency is receiving an increase in the number of requests for people with IT skills — albeit a slow increase. “I don’t want to give the impression that we have thousands of positions going unfilled,” she said. “We’re very fortunate that the number of folks coming in is increasing at about the same pace.”

What these skilled people can accomplish is often tempered by cultural challenges, not necessarily technological ones. Sean Lee, a Peace Corps volunteer who recently returned from Kenya reported, “There is a general sense of indolence regarding the adoption of potentially innovative business practices or ideas,” in Kenya. But he successfully worked with a particularly talented and business-savvy group of rural Massai women outside Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.

The women’s group, called “Namayiana” (Massai for blessed), created beaded sandals, which Lee was able to design with more complex beadwork and sell for the group via email. Later, “as an experiment,” he sold a Massai necklace on eBay, where bidding started at $1 and ended at $26.50 including shipping.

“As easy as eBay is to use for a Western seller, a few simple clicks of the mouse does not always translate into a few simple clicks for the average rural Maasai woman,” he said. “In addition, eBay requests you submit your credit card information so that they can automatically withdraw commission fees; again, an option not readily available to rural artisans.”

Others in the nonprofit sector, however, don’t necessarily see how the focus on information technology necessarily fits into the equation. Derry Duncan, with Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City, for example, told of her email conversations with a friend with a relief organization in Zimbabwe, a country in danger of falling into civil war, inflation is skyrocketing and fuel oil is virtually nonexistent. “Tell me where IT fits in this picture,” she said.

Others may be in NGO development. “Because of the skills that they bring from life and college and all the above, they often times are contributing to increasing people’s awareness Raftery said that some volunteer positions have something akin to information technology in the job title. Others are in NGO development where their experience in business or personal life or from college enables them to “(offer) some ideas and options about how technology can be used in their own operation,” she said. “We don’t track that in the IT check list.”

In the end, the level of how IT skills play a role in a volunteer’s experience is probably broader than the numbers would indicate, Raftery said. “And in some cases that’s serving as a sort of testing ground in countries.”

Placing an emphasis on technology is not distracting Peace Corps from its core of recruits. “We have historically done the lions share of our recruiting on college campuses,” Raftery said. “Our resources for recruitment necessitate some hard decisions on where we invest our recruiting dollars.”

Still, in some ways, however, a dot-commer is really no different than anyone else looking for a drastic change in their life. “There are some folks who are excited about a real 180-degree change, and I think they make very good volunteers,” Raftery said. Flexibility is the key.

Some volunteers can be disappointed that all their talents haven’t been put to use during their two-year stay in a country, she said. It is key for the in-country staff who help manage the volunteer to keep on top of situations.

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