When it comes to working abroad, clocking in for a shift at a foreign pub or hostel can be a great way to fund your travels. But for those who want to make a difference and grow as a person—all while seeing the world—your options aren’t limited to changing beds and clearing tables.
One coveted position is that of the destination staffer. Sometimes called “field staff,” destination staff are the guides or supervisors of international development and experiential education programs. More often than not, they have strong ties with an organization based in North America, but travel is a key component of their job description. Typically, they’re based overseas, although sometimes employers allow destination staff to work in their home country but in a new province or city. In all cases, field staffing is a job with plenty of excitement—and a lot of challenges, too.
If this sounds like the kind of experience you’d love to sink your teeth into, here’s how to land a destination staffing gig and what you can expect from life on the road.
What does it take to be a destination staffer?
Alexandra George knows a thing or two about what it takes to thrive in these types of positions. As an HR professional who has worked with numerous “travel with purpose” organizations since 2012—including Katimavik, YMCA Youth Exchanges, and Crossroads International—she’s seen the challenges and rewards of living and working away from home firsthand.
Through her diverse postings, she’s noticed that successful candidates all have one thing in common: they are self-starters. The best destination staffers are people who are able to find ways to stay motivated when things get tough, driven by the desire to develop strong relationships with both their coworkers and the communities they serve.
According to George, the need for self-starters was only further heightened during the pandemic.
“We’re always looking for people who are adaptable, and who truly recognize themselves in the organization’s values,” says George, now a training facilitator with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
Rachel Robichaud, national experience program manager for Katimavik, reports her organization has a similar focus. Since 1977, Katimavik has provided young adults with the chance to gain life skills and valuable work experience through community development projects across Canada. Called “Project Leaders,” destination staff for Katimavik supervise up to 11 youth volunteers aged 17 to 25, living in-house with them for a six-month term.
Katimavik highly values applicants who are open-minded, have network-building abilities, experience with group management, community development skills, and see themselves as agents of change who want to make a difference. There are, of course, practical requirements as well: successful applicants need a driver’s license and strong communication skills in French and English, as well as the capacity to take on administrative tasks like managing the house’s inventory and tracking the project budget.
However, Robichaud stresses that enthusiasm can go a long way.
“If you have a passion for adventure, love working with youth and learning, and have the desire to make a difference, you already have a lot of what we’re looking for,” says Robichaud.
“If you have a passion for adventure and have the desire to make a difference, you already have a lot of what we’re looking for."
The dual need for connecting with an organization’s values and having a lot of enthusiasm is echoed by Emily Sollows, who participated in Bluenose II’s summer deckhand program and now works as its communications and assistant operations director. The replica of Canada’s most famous racing schooner calls Lunenburg, Nova Scotia home, but it’s constantly on the move in the summer months. Deckhands work directly with the public, volunteer organizations and communities across the province, and sometimes further afield.
According to Sollows, sailing experience is considered an asset for potential hires, but interests and aptitudes count just as much.
“It is equally important for applicants to have a strong interest in learning what it takes to sail and maintain a wooden schooner,” she says.
What can you expect from a field staff position?
According to Sollows, working with the Bluenose II is an “adventurous, educational and memorable job, where you'll make lifelong friendships with your crewmates.” But that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone.
“Life as a deckhand isn’t all about photo ops and adventures,” says Sollows, noting the hours can be long and unusual, particularly in the spring. The reality is that Bluenose II’s summer deckhand program participants spend six months living in close quarters with their coworkers. The combination of hard manual labour and unforgiving exposure to the elements isn’t for everyone.
While this might sound specific to working on the Bluenose II, in some ways it’s universal to being a destination staffer. You may be expected to be on call 24/7 with limited downtime, privacy isn’t always a given, and resiliency is a must to thrive.
To determine if it’s the right gig for you, it pays to arrive at job interviews equipped with the right questions. Sollows recommends drilling down on specifics to get a realistic look at the job beyond the glossy photographs and enticing brochures. You might not be literally swabbing the deck like a Bluenose II deckhand, but there’s often a lot of prosaic work that goes along with most destination staffing jobs: Taking your turn on a kitchen shift or scrubbing the washrooms is a part of life in many jobs in this field, as is filing mundane paperwork, running errands and answering the phones.
Asking questions like “How does a typical Monday morning start?” or “What needs to be done at the end of every work day?” will give you a much better sense of what to expect than more general questions like “What’s the best part about working here”?
This focus on the pragmatic is something that Robichaud recommends as well. She suggests asking questions like: “What is the reality of the day-to-day tasks related to the job?” and “How long will my commitment be with your organization?”
Most importantly, find out how you’ll be supported both in terms of training and upon arrival in the field. George suggests finding out how organizations responded and adapted during the pandemic.
“A lot of organizations had to let staff go when programs were cancelled, but a lot tried to find other opportunities for their teams to stay on board,” says George, explaining that it’s a good way to find out what the management’s approach is towards the care of their teams.
Destination staffing is more than just a job
The truth is that working as destination staff won’t always feel like you’re serving a higher purpose. There are a lot of long hours, mundane chores and challenging tasks. But there are also often opportunities to connect with leaders in your industry, learn unique skills from senior staff, create national or international networks, and develop intercultural competencies. You may just find that it leads to a lifelong career—or at the very least, lifelong friendships.
Add this article to your reading list