In January 2011, the International Labor Organization projected the global unemployment rate to be approximately 6.1 percent, equivalent to 203.3 million people, and developed economies such as the United States and the euro zone consistently hover around 9 and 10 percent, respectively. Given such anemic labor market conditions and the long reach of the United Nations, is it any surprise that employment-related online searches are among the most popular with the world body?
For those somewhat familiar with the UN’s recruitment and hiring processes, you know that it is often (and fairly) characterized as arduous, time-consuming and replete with different standards and practices across agencies. A September 2010 report by the US Government Accountability Office cited American sources within the UN who noted that “some UN officials have ways to bypass an organization’s procedures and policies, or vacancy announcements appear to be written for specific candidates” and that “several Americans said that the hiring process at their organizations were rigid with many steps or were very competitive processes” in the same paragraph of their audit.
“The upper levels [within the UN] are political in the sense that an individual’s opinions are important,” Gus Feissel, a former assistant secretary-general and chief of mission of the UN operation in Cyprus with 35 years of UN experience, said in a recent phone interview.
“People can, and often do come in laterally at the senior levels. At the entry level, however, things are far more structured.”
Focusing on the relatively orderly process of how to launch an entry-level career at the UN, here are four tips:
- To get your “foot in the door,” do your research and select the method most appropriate for you.
Are you currently enrolled in a master’s or Ph.D. level program, willing to accept an unpaid position to receive academic credit and a firsthand impression of the inner workings of the UN and fluent in English and/or French? If so, the United Nations internship program may be right for you.
To promote global peace and development, would you serve a short-term assignment (6 to 12 months) in a “hardship location” such as South Sudan? Take a look at the UN Volunteers program. By becoming a volunteer, you receive a “volunteer living allowance,” covering basic needs; a “settling-in grant”; life, health and permanent disability insurance; return airfares; and a nominal resettlement allowance.
The Web site says UN Volunteers “is not an entry route to the United Nations” — you are considered an external applicant and are expected to complete your assignment—but this could be a great way to add relevant experience to your résumé and emphasize your commitment to the UN for future applications.
Do you have at least a bachelor’s degree, are 32 or younger by the end of this year, fluent in English and/or French and prefer to jump straight into a two-year paid position (with an opportunity for a continuing appointment)? Then you should consider taking the UN’s annual National Competitive Recruitment Examination. Be aware that nationality matters (a list of participating countries and further information can be found here).
- Your nationality is significant.
Like it or not, the UN emphasizes “equitable geographic representation” in its human resources practices. This is UN-speak for describing their quota system, which is based on the financial contributions of each member country to the UN budget. Exact quota figures are difficult to find, but in General Assembly document A/66/347, member countries are categorized as “unrepresented,” “underrepresented,” “within range” or “overrepresented.”
The US, as the largest contributor to the UN regular budget (and to the separate peacekeeping budget), is considered “underrepresented,” but the intra-country competition Americans face is acute.
For example, the 2010 Government Accountability Office report found that of the 1,186 American candidates who sought employment through the National Competitive Recruitment Examination each year from 2006 to 2009, only 240 were actually invited to take the test, and an average of 9 were hired annually.
Given those odds, American applicants should be stellar candidates, possessing at least a master’s degree from a top program and five to seven years of relevant experience.
Non-Americans should check with their governments to see if they participate in the UN Associate Expert Program. These are contract positions in the UN Secretariat for those who may have limited or no professional experience and whose salaries are paid by the donor countries. The US doesn’t participate in the program, but many European governments do.
The Junior Professional Officer Program (JPO) is a similar opportunity for young professionals with a limited experience in specific UN agencies like the UN Development Program or Unicef.
- • Junior-level positions are particularly competitive, so using your networks can give you an edge.In a Nov. 17, 2010 Financial Times article, “UN Hiring Processes: Desire to Make a Difference Inspires Candidates,” a Unicef human resources director said that the agency had “a healthy and increasing number of graduate applicants.” A senior adviser for the UN Environment Program was also quoted as saying that every junior position at that agency “attracts up to 500 applicants.”
Even when seeking an internship, similar odds apply. A recent graduate from the University of Chicago’s master of public policy program who interned at UN headquarters in New York last summer who was interviewed for this PassBlue article said that “I have never met someone who obtained a UN internship in any standard way, including myself. Connections are key to getting into the UN, especially internships, since there are so many applicants.”
As in most fields, relationships are critical in a tough job market. If you’re serious about a UN career, making inroads means all the difference. Form relationships with people currently at the UN, starting with alumni from your graduate or undergraduate programs. Ask these alumni for an informational interview to learn about their responsibilities and how they got where they are. But don’t inquire about potential openings or if they could refer you right away.
If you make a strong impression and keep in touch, an opportunity to ask those types of questions will arise. Effective networking pays off; developing strong relationship with those on the inside may help you receive vacancy announcements first and, depending on the contact, can move your résumé “to the top of the stack.”
- When considering the professional and higher general service or fieldwork levels, make sure your experience and skills fit.
According to UN Careers, professional positions “require judgment in analyzing and evaluating problems as well as in decision-making involving discretionary choices between alternative courses of action.”
In the professional and higher categories, an entry-level P-2 appointment requires at least two years of experience, while P-3 requires at least five years. Midlevel professionals require seven or more years. Regarding education, one should possess at least a master’s degree to be safe (especially if you’re American).
By comparison, “entry-level jobs in the General Service and related categories are usually advertised locally, which means that you will not see those jobs listed on this website.”
The difference between a professional and general position is that the former is typically international (it may require you to move throughout your career) and requires at least a master’s, while the latter are local positions that usually don’t require such a degree. Accepting a general services position will not usually confer an advantage in applying for a professional staff opening later.
Field service staff members provide administrative, technical, logistics and other support services to UN missions. There are four levels of the field service category: FS-4 through FS-7, each requiring increasing levels of relevant experience.
Visit https://careers.un.org/lbw/home.aspx?viewtype=SC to decide which opportunity is right for you.
Applying to the UN is a daunting task, full of bureaucratic steps, but the satisfaction of a career serving the international community, a more than adequate salary and benefits package and the chance to be exposed to global cultures are enough to keep individuals who fit the UN mold and believe in its mission motivated through a six-to-nine month hiring process.
For some job seekers, “A Guide to a Career with the United Nations” is a must-read for more information; UN Job List is a fine tool that automatically collects and breaks down new vacancies from UN organizations every day. Happy hunting!