When choosing a job, most people first consider what it has to offer in terms of monetary rewards, promotion prospects and other fringe benefits. After a few years, however, their priorities can change and the standard attractions then fail to provide the motivation they once did.
That is a situation Mariana Chan, national human resources coordinator for World Vision's China office, understands well. She had progressed steadily as a human resources professional with a bank, but found the job no longer gave her the satisfaction she was looking for and realised that it was time to make a change.
"During my four years at the bank, I always spent my spare time on voluntary work," Ms Chan recalls. As a Catholic, she also realised she had a vocation to contribute to society and, therefore, actively sought opportunities in the field of community development. This paved the way for her career change and Ms Chan did not hesitate to accept the position of executive assistant to the COO of World Vision when it opened up. "It was not quite my area but I was more than happy to join the organisation," she says.
In under a year, she was offered the chance to reside in China handling area HR and ministry development and, over the next four years or so, was involved in projects that took her to a number of mainland provinces. She dealt with issues such as safety and hygiene, which were real concerns in poverty-stricken areas and even in some cities. The travelling could be physically exhausting and being separated from loved ones at home was emotionally draining. However, the real challenge was bridging the gap between the training received in Hong Kong and the reality of living and working in China.
The relationships I built with the local community and the poor have been the most rewarding part of my job
"Our programme officers are responsible for everything from budgeting and finance to human resources development," Ms Chan explains. "Even so, communication with local authorities and communities is the really difficult task. There is always the culture shock and you have to start from scratch in learning how to work with the locals." The support of colleagues and counterparts was always a source of motivation, though. "I saw what sacrifices they were making by devoting themselves to our mission, which strengthened my faith in my work," she adds.
In her current position, Ms Chan's main duties involve human resources coordination on a national level. This requires planning the strategies for recruitment, staff development and performance management. The daily routine includes contacts with over 500 staff in 16 provinces. She is keen to restructure the career paths and succession planning for her mainland colleagues and, therefore, also puts special emphasis on training and development.
Graduates in various disciplines are recruited, but Ms Chan recommends they should carefully evaluate their own aims and interests before applying. "Development is about life transformation and, in doing humanitarian work, we have to face life and death moments. You must believe in the value of each individual life and in creating positive change for the community," she stresses. "There can be endless problems in doing fieldwork, so you must see the work as a transformational force in your own life and something that helps you grow as a person."
Those contemplating this challenge should have an optimistic outlook, a resilient character, an openness to change, and a humble character. "The attitude to have is that we are not sacrificing anything to go into China, but are there to learn from the community," Ms Chan says. Teamwork skills and the willingness to learn are other essential attributes, since programme officers must pick up knowledge about practical issues such as health, water and agriculture every single day. "You learn a lot, and the relationships I built with the local community and the poor have been the most rewarding part of my job," she adds. "The affection they showed me is something I will always remember."
Many of China's growing population still live in poverty, so there is a real need for community development and expertise in social welfare. Though a number of organisations are working to improve things, there remains a shortage of professionals with extensive knowledge of fieldwork and there is an insufficient supply of new recruits. "There should be plenty of opportunities for young people to join us, in both Hong Kong and China," Ms Chan concludes. "Apart from programme management, they can opt for function-based work or focus on thematic areas, such as children in especially difficult circumstances, health, relief or micro-finance."
While the social welfare sector is developing in China, Ms Chan points out that most job opportunities are filled locally by candidates who are more familiar with the mainland's systems for managing water, agriculture, health, agro-forestry and education. However, professionals from Hong Kong may still have an advantage in providing management, consultancy services or healthcare. Ms Chan advises young people in Hong Kong to consider seeking internship opportunities or voluntary positions to get greater experience in fieldwork.