Ask Downer Talent Development Manager Ryan Jacobs about the partnership the firm has had with VSA for the past six years and
he’s effusive and enthusiastic.

“I like to think of these programmes as incubators and accelerators for future leaders and so for me a huge part of that development and that acceleration into leadership is by being exposed to real personal growth.

“That’s what you get when you step out of your comfort zone and experience the unknown, whilst using the skills that you’ve harnessed. Seeing how that impacts a community or a society allows you to come back with a completely different perspective on where your career is going and why you’re doing everything that you’re doing.

Kumeroa (Cooms) White – knows that first-hand. In 2019 she was one of four Downer young professionals on assignment to the Solomon Islands. “I know my ‘why’” says Cooms, “I mean why I want to do engineering, why I want to specialise in water. Water literally gives life - you can’t live without it and spending time on assignment really made it clear how important water and good sanitation is.”

Downer’s VSA assignments involve in-country partnership with the Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development’s asset management team. Cooms’ work focused on developing procurement contracts for school infrastructure including ablution blocks and dormitories.

“On my last school visit, we went to one of the top schools in the Solomon Islands and discovered that all of the students were defecating over the ocean. That need for infrastructure is really eye opening”.

Cooms has brought that back to New Zealand with her and is now a Water Site Engineer within Water Construction in Tauranga - a career path she credits to her experience on assignment.

VSA Stakeholder Engagement Director Mary Curnow works closely with Downer on the programme. She says working with the infrastructure firm has had huge benefits for all involved. “We’re seeing the kind of professional development opportunities for cadets and development gains for local communities that you’d expect, but we’re also seeing a broader and deeper set of gains.

“In the Solomon Islands six years of structured infrastructure development has provided certainty and continuity that’s really putting agency in the hands of locals.

“And we’re seeing Downer volunteers bringing back new skills to New Zealand and a matured worldview that benefits their work and communities here.”

For Cooms, that gain has included adaptability and resilience, and also a new way of looking at her work. “One of the things I took away from my time on assignment is that for the locals culture is everything. To do the job you’ve got to understand the culture and add value.”

Ryan describes it as a maturing “It’s about their [young professionals’] outlook and the way in which they’re actually approaching their work and then when they’re looking at what opportunities come up down the road this all plays into the decision making. They develop a different sense of maturity and understanding.

“It would be great if we could send more people on these assignments.”

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Kumeroa (Comms) White with colleagues at the Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development's asset management team.