Caitlin Dixon – Employment Program Support Officer – The Secretariat of State for Vocational Training Policy and Employment (SEPFOPE), Timor Leste

I feel that that gaining field experience has been important for me coming to a decision about whether international development is the path I want to take.

Name: Caitlin DixonMain country of residence: Australia, (currently living in Timor Leste)Current Position: Employment Program Support Officer Organisation: The Secretariat of State for Vocational Training Policy and Employment (SEPFOPE)
Qualifications: Bachelor of Arts – The University of Newcastle.Master of Development Studies (Ongoing) – The University of Sydney
Years of experience (development/overall): Less than 1 / 5  
LinkedIn Profile/Website Address:
Languages: Tetun (Basic) English (Native)  

What is the nature of the organisation you currently work for?

The Secretariat of State for Vocational Training Policy and Employment (SEPFOPE) is the Timorese government body responsible for the implementation of vocational and employment programs in Timor Leste.

I am based in an Employment Centre (CEOP) in Baucau, three hours from Dili. The CEOP is one of six Employment Centres in the districts of Timor Leste which aim to connect jobseekers and those seeking vocational training with employers and education institutions, as well as support employment and education outcomes through career counselling, on the job training, assisting students graduating school and vocational training, and so on.

It is based on a similar model to the labour market program in Australia, and as well as being funded by the Timorese Government, is also supported by a number of donors, including the Australian Government. Program implementation has been overseen by the International Labour Organization (ILO). My position is a volunteer assignment through the youth stream of the Australian Government’s Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) ( program.

What was your first international development role?

My first role was an unpaid internship with the Federal Court’s International Programs section. I undertook this during my undergraduate degree. It was a valuable introduction into the world of development and the impressive and dedicated people that work in the field.

I would consider my current role as my first ‘real’ work experience in international development. It is a 12 month assignment through the AVID program.

How did you obtain your first development role? Did you apply for it, and if so how many applications did it take to get the first role? Was the role paid or unpaid?

For all AVID positions there is a long online application process for each round of assignments. My current role arose on my fourth application for an AVID position, but in all honestly, it was the only one that I met the selection criteria for. My suggestion for those wanting to apply is to be honest about whether you meet the minimum requirements, and also to apply for a role that really does suit you (not one in the country you might prefer, which was my downfall!). Although the role is voluntary, AVIDs receive monthly accommodation and living allowances.

If you had previously pursued a non-development career, describe how you made the transition and the extent to which your existing skills were transferrable?

I chose to transition into international development by pursuing a Masters of Development Studies, which has been extraordinarily valuable in giving me a critical perspective on the development sector, and helping me to succeed in the AVID program itself.

My previous professional experience was critical in gaining my current position, and I have found that because I have a very broad range of existing skills and experience, I have been able to transition well: from having knowledge of labour market programs from my work in government, to being comfortable giving impromptu English lessons; from training small groups on quality control systems and processes, to the implementation of new administrative procedures. The knowledge I have gained from my Masters has been a valuable base to try to apply these kind of skills in an international development setting.

Did you have experience in the field before obtaining your first paid development role?

I’m currently on assignment in Baucau, Timor Leste, and I consider this will be very valuable for obtaining a paid position in international development in the future.

Do you consider field experience important in obtaining your first development role?

For me, this field experience is a critical part of my future career in international development. This is primarily for personal rather than professional reasons, as the ability to work in different countries was a motivation for me pursuing international development. However, I also feel that that gaining field experience has been important for me coming to a decision about whether international development is the path I want to take.

How important do you consider networking to being successful in your field?

Networking has not played a role in any of my positions to date, as I have gone down traditional recruitment paths. I imagine this has potentially limited my opportunities somewhat, as I do think it is important and undoubtedly many opportunities are only available through networking.

I have also found in-country networking to be important, for example I have a number of friends here in Timor-Leste who have since received offers of paid consulting roles and other opportunities through the NGO community.

In brief what other roles have you had throughout your career and if you did not start your career in development what was your previous profession?

During my undergraduate degree, I worked in the private sector in administration, document and quality control. After finishing my Bachelors, I then entered the federal Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations as part of their graduate program (2010), where I worked in two areas – firstly in a regional office focused on the implementation of employment programs, and then in Canberra working on tertiary education policy for international students.

In 2012 I spent a year working in Bangkok, Thailand as an English teacher. In 2013 I worked for a small NGO in Sydney, the NSW Council for Civil Liberties as the Office Coordinator, which meant getting involved in all aspects of the organization, such as advocacy, research, finances, fundraising and communications.

What do you see as the main advantages and disadvantages of the work you’re engaged in?

The advantages for me are substantial: I’m getting field experience in my sector; I’m learning a new language; I’m learning valuable lessons about this type of work; and I have the opportunity to put into practice skills and knowledge from my degree and from my previous work experience.

However, both my studies and my experience here has left me with significant questions over the broader nature of aid and development, and whether I’m really going to be able to contribute. I’m not in health, sanitation or a field where I can make a physical, tangible contribution – I’m involved (and desire to be involved) in grappling with the more elusive goals of building democracy, governance, and civil society – and I really have no idea whether I can really make any contribution to that. I’m here for a relatively short time and can only have a very minor impact, if any, in the wider perspective. But I don’t think this question will really dissipate, nor should it, as it’s a healthy question to engage with.

More generally, working in a government department can be challenging, as it can have limits on resources (both material and people). Also on a personal level, living in a rural location in Timor has both advantages and disadvantages, from getting to know the language better to having limited social opportunities.

What advice would you give to somebody interested in pursuing a career in international development similar to yours?

I have really valued getting educated in “development” (and I’m now semi-qualified to use those quotation marks). I previously found it frustrating that the entry level for the field was a Masters degree, yet after almost completing my studies I understand why—studying development although provoking at times, is nevertheless invaluable.

Also, after starting out in a few different areas, I think it’s important to spend time thinking about exactly what area of development you want to get into: for me, my experience can take me some places, as can my transferable skills, however, it has been quite difficult to guide my career in a direction that I want as a consequence of how competitive the sector is. As a result, so far I’ve grasped opportunities to get experience, regardless of whether I’ve been terribly interested in them. Of course, in the coming years I’m intending to concentrate more on trying to get experience in the areas I’d like to pursue, not just the work I can get.



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