Position: Professor and Gordon Paul Smith Chair in International Policy and Development
Expertise: The Field of Security and Development
Q: I’ve struggled to wrap my head around this concept. How would you explain stretch work to someone who has never heard of it?
It’s been my thing for four years–here are the high points. At the time I was in the Center for Advising and Career Services (CACS). The Dean sent me an article that basically said that the two big questions for organizing what you need to do to get a job are: 1-What do you know? and 2-What do you know how to do?
The 2011 Article A Human Capital Approach to Career Advising talks about the current job market. The traditional career ladder is going away. What I mean by that is that you work for a company or an organization and they start you out at the bottom. They are training you for a future rise in the company. They might even send you to schools and sponsor your learning for your future career. All of that is gone. There are very few organizations who train people like that. One in the development sector would be the UNHCR–but they are rare.
So what does that mean? The phrase that governed all of my work in this is, “academic advising without career advising builds a bridge to nowhere.” People should be learning based on the competencies required for the jobs or career they are going into. This was once called on the job training (OJT), but we now call it immersive professional learning (IPL). We can add informal learning, stretch work, networking or social capital to that list.
Back in 2012 we had a career focus day on filling your knowledge and skills gap. When I was Dean, we were strictly a graduate school –you fulfill your credits to graduate. It doesn’t look anything like that now because there are so many other ways that you can gain skills and knowledge around what you know and what you know how to do. We are still not into the stretch work yet because historically students got credit for doing things like IPSS or DPMI Plus. But, the idea of stretch work is that they are created entirely on your own and you design tasks, and evaluate how well you do them. You’ve got to do be doing things during the ‘in between’ to be ready for the next job. Sometimes it’s simply learning another language.
One real world case is of a student in Macedonia whose contract with UNDP was up. They were looking for jobs with UNDP, saw a post that totally fit his interests, but priority was given to people who could speak Portuguese. So, he took classes to learn and he was able to apply for the job and say that he was actively learning and demonstrated the classes he was taking, which is great because UNDP doesn’t sponsor language learning. That is a good example of stretch work!
Then, I started thinking that we introduce students to that idea here. Why not have them practice now? First, through online courses, stretch yourself to the next level. Second, take courses like DLC or META Lab offered ones. It is up to you, but don’t graduate without competency in things like Excel for example. Third, gain working experience through internships that are not connected with a 4 credit academic program.
Stretch yourself to fill the gaps. How do you know where the gaps are? Read job descriptions. If you want to get a job in Jamaica, for example, read the description and decide you need to be qualified to get that job. Do your stretch work. Find which of the 300 organizations in the county will allow you to learn the skills that you don’t now know to do. Not only will you have confidence in doing the work if you are hired, but you will have another recommendation for your portfolio.
This year we introduce the competencies of Development Practice & Policy (DPP). When you know what you don’t know, you begin to ask yourself if you can gain those competencies. This new DPP document is coming out in September for Master of Public Administration (MPA) and International Policy and Development (IPD) students, and we will introduce stretch work as a unique opportunity.
Q: What is an example of a time you had to stretch yourself in your professional life?
It was 2005 and Hurricane Katrina had just hit. In September an African American woman, who later became the Surgeon General, came to mass at my church. At the end she asked the Priest if she could talk to the Parish. She described her town Bayou La Batre, Alabama, which was flooded out. Every home was flooded. This is a place where most people have nothing. Within four days the Parish raised $250,000 for the town.
Later, I got a call from my Priest, who knew of my work in development in El Salvador, and he said, “I need your help. The people who gave us that money said that we couldn’t just donate to an organization like the Red Cross. Go to Alabama and figure out how to use this money to help the people of that town.” I then recruited four Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCV) who were MPA Candidates. We went and did a needs assessment, which I had never done before. I literally had to look it up. The students who had recently taken a course on writing a funding proposal worked on it, too. In the end we developed a program that allowed volunteers from Monterey to fly down and rebuild homes.
I had never partnered with another organization before and I learned how to. This is something participants in DPMI learn to do. We partnered with Catholic Social Services in Mobile, Alabama. And the biggest part, I think was the learning on the job cultural competency. The community make up was about 40% Vietnamese, 20% African-American and 20% Mexican. With everyone on the same footing, we formed a consortium of faith-based communities that put people back in their home by repairing them. I was essentially taking a series of short courses on how to put together a humanitarian relief organization. And that is just what we did. And those students are still working in humanitarian action.
That is the spirit of stretch work. It’s the idea of how we get ready to go. We had 2 months before our needs assessment. We initially thought we would be helping children. But so many other agencies had done that. It was a two year project and it was very successful. I was prepared. I recognized what I didn’t know, so I knew what stretch work had to be done. For example, one of the problems with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was that before you collect the materials needed to rebuild your house, those supplying the materials needed to evaluate your house and an estimator needed to come assess the damage. Thanks to Google I was able to figure it out and recruit an estimator to the team. I was totally out of my comfort zone. I’m about reducing and preventing armed violence. Working with the city government of a very deep southern town led to people coming to us wondering what we are doing and why we have parted with certain individuals. There were touchy moments, but we got things done.
Q: What would be your elevator pitch to students who are still not convinced?
In your career, you will seek to get more knowledge and learn how to do many more things so that you can move up in your career. In today’s marketplace that is all put on the professional himself or herself. Today you will have a full time job and the only way that you can gain additional skills and experience is by stretching yourself and learning these things on your own. Stretch work is the approach where you learn how to do this and improve yourself as a professional.
Q: What’s Your Spirit Animal? Can’t think of one? Name an animal, now another, and finally another.
Dog ← What you think your spirit animal is.
Jaguar ← What others think represents you.
Gila monster ← What your spirit animal actually is.