Careers in Public Service: An Interview with Aimee Lauer of USAID

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The Wasserman Center will be interviewing professionals working in public service to better understand how their careers have progressed. For our second “Careers in Public Service” interview, we are exploring international development, so we met with Aimee Lauer.

Aimee Lauer works in the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and is Division Chief for Program Support at United States Agency for International Development (USAID). In this capacity, she manages OFDA’s budget portfolio ($2.2B in FY15) and oversees annual spending, while also managing all staffing and recruitment requirements.

Wasserman Center (Wass): How did you get started in this field?

Aimee Lauer (Aimee): It certainly wasn’t a straight path. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in Foreign Service, I applied to jobs in various fields. I secured a job at Accenture as an IT and Financial Management Consultant. It was a great company and I gained extensive hands-on experience in consulting, though I discovered my passion lied elsewhere. I knew that I wanted to do International Development work and realized I needed to get a Master’s to get into the field. I decided to go back to graduate school and earned my Master of Science degree in International Development from Georgetown University. I started working at USAID 15 years ago as a Presidential Management Fellow, spending 9 years in disaster response before moving into development work. During this time, I’ve led the DC-based components of OFDA’s responses to the Haiti earthquake, the Haiti cholera outbreak, and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Through this work I have had the opportunity to work in a number of countries around the world including Haiti, Egypt, South Africa, Eritrea, Kenya, Namibia, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Thailand, and Nepal.

Wass: What skills/advanced degrees are required to enter the field?

Aimee: In addition to a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree is typically required to get into the field. Communication skills are important, such as the ability to quickly convey points to leadership in a compelling and concise way. Strong interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence are also important.

Wass: What personality traits/characteristics do employers in this field value?

Aimee: Adaptability to consistent change is key! You need to possess the ability to work under intense deadlines with little or no guidance, and sometimes competing guidance. You should also be able to work well under pressure and be willing to learn as part of a team. Employers also value experience at NGO’s, and field time overseas involving disaster and domestic response work. It’s also important that you know yourself and what environments you work best in.

Wass: What are the typical entry-level positions?

Aimee: USAID offers every kind of entry level position to get into the field. In addition to disaster relief, international development also involves business processes and understanding and implementing policy. USAID has roles in Grant Administration, Finance and budgeting, HR, IT, Procurement, and Recruiting. You can learn more about working at USAID here.

Wass: What is an average day/week on the job like?

Aimee: There is no average day at USAID. Everyday is different and it always changes! Your whole day can turn around based on unexpected life events. For instance, when Hurricane Matthew hit we had to drop everything and spend all day drafting talking points.

Wass: What is the work culture like?

Aimee: Regardless of the department you’re in, we are all humanitarians dedicated to a common goal to save lives, alleviate human suffering, and reduce social and economic impact of disasters. We recognize our roles involve dealing with very critical world issues and our jobs are very demanding! But our roles are also very rewarding and we are here to support one another and ensure that we’re managing well.

Wass: What are the opportunities for in-service training/professional development?

Aimee: There is strong emphasis on professional development and learning in our organization. Many of the staff have a training budget in place they can use on supporting their professional development. We also have individual learning plans in place and recently revised all performance management tools. We dedicate a lot of time to an “After Action Review” after every response where we poll the staff on what worked well and what didn’t and then we pass that onto senior leadership.

Wass: What are the opportunities for advancement within this field?

Aimee: There is a lot of opportunity for growth within the OFDA. Many of our employees grow within the company, myself included. Some decide they want to work for NGO’s, but many have returned and bring back skills to apply to and grow our organization.

Wass: What’s the best networking strategy for this field?

Aimee: Certainly attend the numerous events and panels the Wasserman Center offers to students in your field! Always take advantage of an informational interview! This is a key networking, career exploration, and job-hunting tool available to you.