Take a break to fight poverty with IT skills

Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) is crying out for IT professionals to work on an increasing number of IT projects around the...

Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) is crying out for IT professionals to work on an increasing number of IT projects around the world, writes Roisin Woolnough.

"We are very desperate for IT skills," says Lisa Stafford, manager of the maths, science and IT team at VSO. "It has gone from a very small number of placements a few years ago to a massive demand for IT skills and it is still increasing."

IT is becoming increasingly important in developing countries to help them overcome poverty. Stafford says VSO could easily place over 50 people each year in IT roles - but it is not receiving the volume of applications it needs. "We are probably meeting about 60% of requests," she says.

Furthermore, Stafford thinks the requirement is actually a lot higher than it appears because non-governmental organisations (NGOs) know that VSO is struggling to meet demand and as a consequence, many are not submitting as many project proposals as are necessary.

Training is a big issue. VSO has a high demand for dedicated IT trainers to teach people how to use and maintain IT equipment. Volunteers who embark upon any kind of IT project invariably find that training is a strong element of their job because people have to be able to carry on their work once they have finished.

"One of the key things is to share your knowledge," explains Ian Patten, senior consultant at management consultancy Charteris, who spent two years running the IT operation for a children's charity in Zimbawbe. "You have to make yourself redundant."

Patten's remit was to link up six separate offices from around the country, creating a network, setting up local area networks and e-mail. "I had to teach folk how to use it, maintain it, import the kit, mend kit and look after databases," he says.

As well as training skills, there is a constant demand for people with networking, database and systems analysis skills, says Stafford. VSO particularly favours anyone with project management experience because volunteers often find that they need to draw on a far wider range of skills and experience than their initial job description suggested. "We need people with strong IT skills and project management experience - people who have experience of the whole business," says Stafford.

Volunteers need to be flexible and adaptable, because they have to understand how best to implement the IT to suit the needs of the beneficaries. "You have to be sensitive to other people and the community," she says. "You have to be able to think on your feet and adapt to the situation."

Some IT professionals have been deterred from doing VSO work because they are concerned about taking a two-year break - the standard period of time for VSO placements - from their career in case their skills become out of date. However, Stafford says there is an increasing demand for people to work on projects of six to 12 months' duration.

VSO has also set up a scheme with a number of companies to enable employees to take time out from their jobs to work on projects. Launched in 1999, the VSO Business Partnerships scheme aims to attract professionals with business skills, particularly technical business skills, to work on short-term business assignments.

Employers who sign up to the scheme agree to release staff for a period of between three and 12 months. Employees receive a local wage, accommodation, flights and basic living costs from VSO. Some employers also offer to cover the employee's fixed costs back in the UK, such as mortgage and pension payments.

Accenture, formerly Anderson Consulting, was one of the founding members of the scheme and currently has five employees working on Business Partnership projects, with another four signed up to future projects.

Willie Jamieson, head of geographic services at Accenture, thinks the scheme benefits both individuals and the corporation. "Some people really enjoy their job, but come to a point in their career when they want to travel and do something different for a bit. Also, a lot of our people join us from university, are very young and want to travel."

Jamieson says many of the skills required by Accenture are similar to those required by VSO, such as project management, finance management, business awareness and so on. He thinks that those who have done VSO work bring back a greater understanding, awareness and commitment to their job.

VSO enquiries team: 020-8780 7500; www.vso.org.uk

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