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Peace Corps—Still Recruiting Voluntary Ambassadors

March 1, 1998
Related Topics: Candidate Sourcing, Featured Article
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When President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, he issued a call to service to Americans with these words, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." He materialized this vision by establishing the Peace Corps to promote world peace and friendship.

Today, 36 years after the Peace Corps was founded, there are approximately 6,600 volunteers serving in 85 countries around the world.

Managing a full-time staff and volunteer corps requires a global HR mindset. Director of Human Resources Management Daniel F. Janssen shares how the agency continues to recruit its skilled, grass-roots ambassadors.

How long have you worked for the Peace Corps?
I’ve worked for the Peace Corps for 18 months. Though I wasn’t a volunteer, I have lived and worked in Italy and Great Britain. These experiences have given me some global perspective. I’ve worked as a federal employee for 15 years, working at the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense. My background is in organizational management and human resources.

What attracted you to employment with the Peace Corps?
The Peace Corps has a very definite mission: to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women, to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served and to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. So people who work here do so because they want to and because they believe in the mission. Since 1961, we’ve had more than 150,000 volunteers go through the Peace Corps system. And last year, we received 7,000 applications for 250 employment positions. It’s a very competitive environment.

Does the Peace Corps institute limited terms of employment?
Yes. We have what we call the "five-year rule." This rule was put into law in 1965. The thinking behind it was to keep the Peace Corps dynamic with new ideas coming in. What it means is that no staff can work for the agency longer than five years. As far as I know, we’re the only government organization—and maybe the only organization anywhere—that turns over its workforce every five years.

So how does that impact the stability of HR functions?
We have to work hard at it, you can well imagine. One of the things we have is written procedures about how we do our human resources management policies. When we bring new HR people on board, which we do at least once every five or six months, we conduct a training and mentoring period with other HR professionals working here.

Can volunteers become staff and vice versa?
Yes, many volunteers do apply for staff positions after serving abroad. And we also have volunteers who started out as staff.

Where do most of the Peace Corps staff come from?
During the first decade of the Peace Corps’ history, there weren’t many staff who were former volunteers. Today, roughly 60 percent of our staff are former volunteers. We find that many of our volunteers would like to work as staff, and they do apply after returning from tour. Even those who’ve been out of service for a number of years look to come back into the Peace Corps as staff. And then there are people, such as myself, who weren’t volunteers but are interested in the organization. We recruit staff from government, nonprofit organizations and the private sector.

Does HR recruit the volunteers?
No. We hire staff for the Volunteer Recruitment and Selection Office. They do the actual recruiting, and we have 11 recruiting offices throughout the United States.

How has recruitment of volunteers changed over the years?
The average age of our volunteers has gone up over the last 36 years. The average age today is 29 years. In the early ’60s, it was 21 or 22. When the Peace Corps first started, our volunteers provided mainly educational and health services.

Today, our recruitment staff look for mid-career people with experience in corporations or running small businesses. The Peace Corps is looking for people with more than just college and academic experience. We also are working to ensure more diversity by recruiting at predominantly black universities and colleges, in the Southwest and in inner cities.

What kind of training does HR provide for those who will oversee volunteers?
The 220 employees who go overseas are given an intensive one-month training period. HR acquaints them with their administrative and supervisory duties in support of the volunteers. In most countries, we may have 50 to 100 volunteers. There are usually three or four American staff to service the volunteers in each country. The country program is headed by a country director with a couple of associate directors who may be specialists in education, health, agriculture or small business development.

How has technology improved the work flow of the Peace Corps?
It has been tremendous in facilitating communication and management of our overseas employees and volunteers. In the ’60s, most communication was handled through State Department cables and pouches. It took weeks to get anything out to the posts. Today, most of our posts are connected with e-mail. We’re finding that it’s easier to communicate by e-mail than telephone. Some countries’ infrastructure for online communication is more advanced than their regular telecommunications systems.

What’s the most frequent issue that needs to be communicated between the country directors and HR?
Staffing. The country directors need their positions filled as quickly as possible. In addition, when it’s open enrollment season for adjusting health and retirement benefits, there are a lot of related questions.

Can you name any former volunteers who’ve carried out the Peace Corps’ service mission in their subsequent careers in the United States?
There’s U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala (Iran); writer Paul Theroux (Africa); journalist Bill Moyers (former Peace Corps deputy director); Sen. Christopher Dodd (Dominican Republic); and five other members of Congress.

And you?
I plan to serve someday. Right now, I have fairly young children. After they grow up, I’d like to go to a country and help in public administration because of my career in government and public administration. Many countries are trying to improve their public administration. I’d like to help in that regard.

Workforce, March 1998, Vol. 77, No. 3. pp. 27-28

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