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News, 7/30/2012

Preparing for a career at the UN

Each year the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs provides funding for some 100 junior experts taking up international assignments via the UN Junior Professional Officers (JPO) and the UN Volunteers (UNV) programmes. Thirty of them convened in Helsinki to hear about the latest trends in development policy and to exchange their experiences of working with the UN.

Finland invests heavily in both the JPO and the UNV programmes. It is one of the major donor countries, contributing some 9 million euros a year.

JPO-UNV-participantsA seminar hosted by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs brought together 30 UN junior officers and volunteers to exchange experiences and thoughts about their future prospects. Photos: Ilkka Tiensuu

The United Nations has traditionally been an important channel for Finnish foreign policy. “The UN is the cornerstone of the multilateral system. It enjoys strong legitimacy, and we want to be involved in strengthening it further,” said Jorma Julin, Director General at the Department of Development Policy. JPO programmes provide an avenue for sharing experiences and for mutual learning. “Working with you has been a long-term investment that we hope will bring benefits not only to yourselves but also to the Ministry,” Julin continued.

Liisamaria Keates replied that she was delighted to have gained access to such a unique vantage point. Keates has worked as a JPO with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Afghanistan. “The amount that you learn in this job about international politics and cooperation is just amazing,” she observed. 

JPO-UNV_ElinaKaartinenElina Kaartinen returned to Finland after spending two years as JPO for the United Nations in Honduras.

Elina Kaartinen, having just completed a two-year spell in the UN Volunteers programme, had a very similar assessment. “This was a useful experience. All of us UN volunteers were doing real jobs. I myself had the opportunity to work closely with local administration.”

Kaartinen spent her time at the UNDP Honduras Office working in biodiversity projects. “This experience opened my eyes to what it’s like working at country level, and I learned what kind of practical problems you can face in these projects. What I would like to see is greater openness and transparency in UN operations.”

Who can apply?

In Finland, recruitment into the JPO programme is coordinated by the Centre for International Mobility CIMO. “We get a lot of high calibre applicants from Finland. Many of them will already have significant international experience,” says project coordinator Tarja Nousiainen.

So how does a prospective candidate considering a UN career stand apart from other candidates? What kind of people are UN organizations looking to hire?

“International experience does not guarantee you will be selected, but it’s certainly an asset,” Nousiainen says. It’s important of course to meet the basic qualification requirements and to have the right kind of work experience.

“It’s unlikely that you will be recruited straight from university,” she points out. “On average successful applicants will have 3–4 years of work experience, but again that depends on the type of assignment. There are less applicants in male-dominated branches.”

However technical skills and abilities are not necessarily an end-all and be-all. Motivation and values are also considered in the process of candidate selection. “In many countries the work environment can be extremely demanding; Afghanistan is a case in point. It makes sense to do your homework about the location and the country before you file your application,” Tarja Nousiainen says. 

Travelling to China with a baby

Having a family is no obstacle to taking on a foreign assignment with the UN. Tiina Markkinen has an eleven-month-old son and together with her husband will soon be heading for China where she will be starting as a JPO for UNICEF. “We should be leaving in August, but preparations are still far from complete,” she admits.

JPO-UNV_TiinaMarkkinenThe JPO programme is an excellent way of gaining field experience, says Tiina Markkinen, newly appointed UNICEF JPO in Beijing.

Why would a mother of a small child decide to leave for China in the middle of her maternity leave?

“I’ve worked with child welfare organizations in Finland for four years now, and this was a wonderful opportunity to gain field experience. I’m sure it will expand my world view and broaden my perspective on the work I do in Finland as well,” Markkinen explains.

“I chose the UN because it’s such a significant international player and because the JPO programme is so well-known. There’s also the benefit of family assistance, which makes it’s easy for my husband to come along.”

In Beijing Markkinen will mainly be working in project administration related to children’s rights. Knowledge of Chinese was not a requirement for the position, but she is nonetheless determined to start learning the language as soon as she arrives so that it is easier to manage in everyday situations.

“I’m very excited about this all. I think the job will be extremely interesting. The only thing that worries me a bit is how my husband will settle in.”

Competition is tough

The question that stimulated the most discussion among the seminar participants was: “What next?” Most of them were keen to remain with the UN system, which is an attractive employer, but participation in UN programmes in no way guarantees a continued career path.

JPO-UNV_PirjoandSusannaJPO and UNV programme coordinator Susanna Kytösaho and Head of Unit Pirjo Suomela-Chowdhury took questions from the seminar participants.

After the two-year programme it is possible to apply for additional funding for a third year. A few seminar attendees had been fortunate enough to secure consultancy contracts on completion of their assignments.

Director General Jorma Julin reminded the participants about the huge importance of networking for future job opportunities.

The branch is certainly not immune to the current economic situation. “Right now there is increasing pressure on these positions from southern Europe, and the competition is tough,” Julin explained.

Pirjo Suomela-Chowdhury, Head of Unit for UN Development Issues, encouraged the seminar participants by reminding them that their experience is well appreciated in other branches too. Former JPOs and UN volunteers are hired not only by UN organizations, but also by the central government sector and NGOs.

UN Volunteers programme

  • The Ministry for Foreign Affairs provides funding for 15–20 Finnish junior experts participating in the UN Volunteers programme in developing countries.

  • Assignments are for two years.

  • Applicants are required to have a higher university degree and at least two years’ relevant work experience.

  • Lower age limit is 25 year, no upper age limit.

  • Personnel selection for UN volunteer positions financed by Finland is administered by UN headquarters in Bonn.

 JPO positions

  • Each year the Ministry for Foreign Affairs provides funding for 30 Finnish JPOs hired by the United Nations and its organizations, international financial institutions and certain research organizations.

  • Appointments are ordinarily for a term of two years.

  • Applicants are required to have a higher university degree, and they should be fluent in English, have knowledge of another official UN language, and have 1–2 years’ relevant work experience.

  • The upper age limit to JPOs positions is 32 years.

  • JPO recruitment is administered and coordinated by the Centre for International Mobility CIMO.

Vacancies are advertised on the Ministry for Foreign Affairs website.

Text: Satu Ryynänen

Photos: Ilkka Tiensuu

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Updated 7/30/2012

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