The Truth About Construction Volunteering Abroad

by Published

Anyone who has been on a volunteer trip knows that there are many different types of volunteering. From conservation and farming to education and medicine, there is certainly a type of volunteer work that is perfect for everyone. However, there is one type of international volunteer work abroad that often gets overlooked: construction volunteering abroad. 

Many international volunteers overlook construction volunteering opportunities because they believe they need building or construction experience to be effective. This is understandable when compared to the work of a medical or education volunteer, however this is not always true when it comes to construction volunteer work.

Construction volunteers mixing concrete in Costa Rica

Volunteers pour concrete in San Jose, Costa Rica

While having some kind of construction knowledge or specific skillset certainly helps, many times the skills needed to be a successful construction volunteer abroad can be taught by the project foreman on-site. Construction skills like digging, mixing concrete, or hammering nails are so simple that any able-bodied person can do them, with a little guidance and direction.

At the end of the day, most construction projects simply need more volunteers. Period. When a project is funded and construction starts, volunteers are needed to do the heavy lifting (sometimes literally) that is required to get the job done on time. But...

Why should you volunteer abroad in construction in the first place? 

There are plenty of benefits of construction volunteering abroad:

  • It addresses immediate needs in a developing community
  • It creates lasting impact that can be seen for years to come
  • You can work alongside locals and make lasting friendships
  • It’s great for both solo volunteers and groups of volunteers
  • It is a chance to be active, work outside, and take a break from technology
  • You will learn basic construction skills 

Is construction volunteering right for you?

In order to decide if construction volunteering abroad is a good fit for you (or your group), you should ask yourself some of the following important questions: 

Construction volunteer shoveling concrete in Costa Rica

Volunteers dig a foundation in rural Costa Rica

Are you willing to work hard, get your hands dirty, and do manual labor every day?

If the answer is no, you may want to reconsider your options for volunteering abroad (maybe journalism or women’s empowerment volunteer programs will suit your interests better).

If the answer is yes, then you may be well suited to volunteer abroad in construction. Construction volunteering isn’t necessarily back breaking work by any means, but you will definitely work up a sweat. You can expect to do things like digging, hammering, framing, mixing and pouring concrete, painting, laying bricks or CMU blocks, and installing roofing.

Usually there are multiple things going on throughout the duration of a construction project, so if you’re not comfortable with a certain task, there will surely something else to be done.

Do you work well with others?

Teamwork is a crucial part of construction volunteering abroad. Whether you choose to volunteer abroad alone or in a group, you will be working with other people to accomplish a common goal.

If you would prefer to work on your own, or one-on-one with someone else, you may want to consider alternative types of volunteer placements that will put you in a more independent setting.

Can you follow directions?

(And we don’t just mean do you color inside the lines or raise your hand before speaking in class) All construction volunteering projects abroad will have some sort of foreman on-site to instruct you daily. They will give you specific directions that you will need to follow in order for the building project to be a success. In some cases, the foreman will also give you directions in order to keep you safe; for example, wearing safety goggle during certain periods of construction or while completing particular tasks. 

Construction volunteer preparing rebar

A volunteer prepares rebar for a concrete pour

Are you willing to ask for help?

It’s ok if you don’t know how to do something. However, it’s NOT ok to guess and hope for the best when you are a construction volunteer abroad. You should feel comfortable asking for help when you need it, whether you need someone to repeat directions about how to complete a certain task or your nail just won’t go in where they said it would. 

Construction volunteering is meant to be fun, hands on experience. So, if you can do all of these things, you will surely have a great time as a construction volunteer abroad. Between the project foreman, the locals you will be surrounded by, and your fellow volunteers, you will meet interesting people and build new friendships along the way (yes, we said build, but you could construct some too!). 

How should you choose a construction volunteering organization?

Not all construction volunteering opportunities are created equal. When searching for the right organization for your construction volunteer program abroad, there are a few things you should look out for: 

Financial Transparency. When searching for a construction volunteering organization, financial transparency is important (warning: this is a huge understatement!). You should ask where your program fees go exactly, and the organization should be able to tell you without hesitation. If they can’t, that’s clearly not a good sign. There should be a distinct delineation between overhead costs for the organization, meals and accommodations for volunteers, and construction costs of each project, otherwise the costs of each construction project will not add up. 

Mutual Accountability. This should be a concern with any type of volunteer organization, but it is especially important when it comes to construction volunteering abroad. Any volunteer organization should be researching you as much as you are researching them. When it comes to them researching you, this will most likely come in the form of a background check, or letter of reference at the very least. This shared accountability ensures your own safety as much as theirs, as well as the safety of other volunteers and anyone else that might be working on the construction project with you, such as local contractors and foremen.

Construction volunteers laying bricks in Cusco, Peru

Volunteers lay brick on a new building in Cusco, Peru

Social Responsibility. This is another extremely important concern for any volunteer organization. In the context of construction volunteering abroad, social responsibility refers to the impact your work and the work of the organization has on the local community. It is important to ask about what the organization’s long-term goals are for their projects. It is also important to ask if the organization hires locally, which will ensure the organization is truly engrained and invested in the community. 

Final Thoughts on Construction Volunteering Abroad

If you haven’t considered construction volunteering abroad before reading this article, hopefully you will now! Many volunteers fall in love with volunteering on construction projects abroad and find themselves going back year after year, while others decide to stay for many months at a time.

There are an abundance of construction volunteer projects around the world that need volunteers like you, so if you think you’re up for the challenge, grab a shovel and lend a hand!