A career building experience: construction in the Philippines

Australian volunteer construction management advisor helps build housing co-ops as part of resettlement program, while experiencing life in the Philippines.

Sydney-based construction manager Lachlan James spent 10 months in the Philippines working with a human rights NGO, where he learnt knew skills and was challenged professionally. He’s hoping the experience will be a gateway to take his career in a new, exciting direction. Here’s Lachlan’s story.

I’d always had itchy feet and intentions to travel and work. I liked the idea of experiencing different places and cultures just to see what else is out there. 

I went straight into the construction industry out of high school. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I got an apprenticeship with a small building company - demolishing bathrooms and general labouring. Then I progressed, did a certificate IV in building at TAFE and went on to do a bachelor’s degree in construction at university.

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Australian volunteer Lachlan James with the housing cooperative beneficiaries at one of his workshops. They are on site at the housing development being constructed for them to live in. Supplied: Lachlan James
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Australian volunteer Lachlan James (left) with a builder at a housing site being cleared for a new development in Quezon City, Manila. Supplied: Lachlan James

From there I had about 12-13 years’ experience in construction management with a commercial scale builder in Sydney. I had been working with that company for about seven years - longer than I ever intended - before applying to volunteer in the Philippines.

My intention was to transition into development work and I thought a volunteer assignment could be a good way to do that: as a stepping stone into paid international development work.

My volunteer assignment was overwhelmingly positive, but definitely not without its challenges. 

My assignment as Construction Management Advisor involved working with a human rights NGO which is running a housing resettlement program, which is funded by the Philippines Government.

The first beneficiaries to receive housing through the program were people in danger zones - typically flood-prone areas with adjacent running waterways. This later expanded to include other groups of people who were being evicted from their homes, which they had built on government or privately-owned land.

The program was underway when I arrived. The legal framework was in place, communities were aware of the resettlement program and engaging with our NGO.

Potential beneficiaries were arranged into housing cooperatives and put forward for funding approval by the government. Some Co-ops were more advanced than others - a few had construction underway. Our organisation was involved with 15 different co-ops ranging in size from a few hundred families to the biggest being around 1,500 families.  

Previous Australian volunteers had assisted with advocating the cause and then drafting the legal framework. Now in the delivery phase, the NGO had identified a hole in their skill set in regards to construction management, which was where I came in.

As a volunteer, we’re not just there to do a job; we’re there to teach people how to do a job.

The idea is that we leave something behind in addition to building the physical structures: that people are developing skills they can continue to use, long after we’re gone.

I created five different learning modules which included: understanding contract documents, reading plans, progressing claims, site supervision and occupational work health and safety.

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Australian volunteer Lachlan James on a work trip to the surfing town Baler in Aurora, Island of Luzon. Supplied: Lachlan James
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Australian volunteer Lachlan James (second from left) singing karaoke with work colleagues in their office in Quezon City, Manila, Philippines. Supplied: Lachlan James

These formed the basis for a capacity development intervention, to ensure my colleagues developed the skills needed to manage all the elements of construction after I left. This was great and daunting at the same time! I didn’t have a lot of guidance on what that would look like, and it took time to build up trust and understanding with colleagues and cooperatives.

Once the learning modules were agreed on, I focused on five communities. The co-ops we selected were in the early phases of construction, where the learning modules would have the most impact. All the modules were tailored to the specific cooperatives.

Often just obtaining the necessary paperwork to compile a workshop was an insurmountable task: either no one knew where it was or it simply didn’t exist. Arranging a meeting with the board of directors for cooperatives was an ordeal – finding a time and location that suited everyone, with Manila traffic being a real inhibitor. We usually had a few attempts at meeting up, there would be cancellations, other things would be prioritised and eventually we’d get to it.

I would then identify cooperative board members (who were mostly middle-aged women) to find people who were willing and able to invest in undertaking the learning modules. This was a challenge as many of the members had to prioritise their numerous other demands as wives and mothers.

After delivering the learning modules through a series of workshops and seminars, I was tasked with establishing a labour hire organisation. This eventually turned into a construction contracting organisation, which managed the building of some of these developments themselves.

I did a full business model for the NGO – like a business analyst would do - which is something I’d never done before but I thought was a good opportunity. We developed the positions and job descriptions on an organisational chart, looked at what skills were available, then as a group we identified the gaps that we would target in training exercises.

There was actually very little holding me back from completing a volunteer placement.

I had my leg amputated and wear a prosthetic to walk, and volunteering in the Philippines was still well within reach.

My condition and form stood out in the Philippines. People would stop in the street and stare at me like I was something that fell from space! They would stop me in the streets too – it wasn’t odd for that to happen once or twice a week, which was both a good way to meet people and occasionally annoying.

Generally, people were just curious about the mechanics of my prosthetic and more than anything, impressed by it and my mobility.

There were even a few advantages in the Philippines for a person with disability (PWD), actually. They would encourage me to go first in line at the grocery store for example. I could also ride in the last carriage of the MRT (train) with the pregnant women and older people - this was a biggie considering how stressed the service was. I’d usually have a seat or at least some breathing space!

Professional development wise my assignment probably lived up to or even exceeded what I was hoping to get out of it.

— Lachlan James

On assignment I was hoping I’d be able to experience different things, so the business analyst work was great. The experience for me running the seminars and workshops was new and exciting. I hadn’t had a lot of training or coaching experience before, so it was great to develop those skills.

After I got back to Australia, I had an interview for a position with Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF).

I had applied for a role with them once before and hadn’t got an interview. I don’t think I would have got that interview without the experience with the Australian Volunteers Program. Although I didn’t get that role, I feel positive that my volunteering experience has brought me a little closer to my goal of full-time employment in aid work.

My advice to other people working in construction who might be thinking about doing an assignment, is just do it, we can’t live in fear!

— Lachlan James

Your profession will always be there, right? You can always come back to construction after, if you still want to.