Monday, February 3, 2014

Working Overseas

Increasingly, more Americans are considering career options beyond the nation’s borders. After I was quoted in a recent New York Times photo essay on the 5th of January about Americans working and living overseas, I’ve received inquiries from readers asking for advice about how they, too, can investigate international opportunities. I don’t know if there is a ritual or plan you could necessarily implement; until it happened, I never envisioned myself living and working in a foreign country. I’m from Cleveland, a city I love, but I previously lived in Cary, North Carolina, a place from which I thought I’d never leave. But it just shows to never make long term plans – they can change. Regarding my own relocation, it was more a unique series of events and coincidences rather than an intentional effort that led me to live in Prague, Czech Republic. I recognized it, grabbed hold of it and 13 years later, I’m still here.
Occasionally during my time working here as a headhunter, I have been contacted by non-Czech foreigners, many of them Americans, who express interest in investigating opportunities here. Though most of them, I assume, are not really serious but only inquiring on a whim. A whim I say, because often they say something like, “…I loved the architecture and the beer…” (or something similar) and they’ll ask what jobs are available as though I have this repository of jobs for Americans who’d like to dabble in work while they enjoy the culture; but it doesn’t work that way – it never works that way. I do sometimes see opportunities for expats but, at least in my area, they don’t have the cache or clout they once did. Local professionals are just as qualified, which doesn’t mean there are no opportunities, but you’re going to have to compete with those already here, on their home turf. I’m not throwing water on anyone’s dreams about working and living overseas, but it must be approached with the same serious intent as you would with any job or career effort. Living and working as an expat is rewarding but can also be challenging, and potentially a disaster for anyone who does not consider it thoroughly or conduct some research.
I’ve spoken with many misguided souls who think it will be easier elsewhere, that the grass is greener; that just because they are American, or a native of any other well-established national economy, doors will swing open for them. Not so. That doesn’t mean there are no opportunities but unless you have something unique to offer, or a skill in short supply in a marketplace where you want to be, you must be able to compete and beat other qualified locals already in the market. Frankly, it is the same whether you want to relocate from the east to the west coast, as it is from one continent to another. Please also be aware that an attitude of American superiority is a real fast turn-off and the same goes for anyone of any nationality, who assumes they are going to arrive and help civilize and save the local savages from themselves.
If you are blessed with working for a company that will move you internationally within the same organization, it’s the best of options. Another option is joining an organization which actually encourages employees to move internationally as a reward for accomplishment and merit. It is a bad idea to move to a place where you’ve never been without at least one local visit to conduct a recon and scope out the area before you leap. You should also investigate the local laws and costs / standards of living. My own transition and assimilation was made easier because of my Czech and Slovak family heritage. I was already familiar with the customs and traditions of the area and, believe me, knowing and recognizing local culture and differences can portend whether or not doors open for you or are closed and off limits. If you are young and don’t yet have much tying you down, you can be a little more adventurous but, take it from me, you will need more money than you think, so plan ahead – and have an escape plan if things don’t work out; have the means to get back home if it doesn’t pan out as you’d hoped.
The number one obstacle standing in the way of most people who seek to live and work overseas, especially native English speakers, is foreign-language abilities. While others around the world have been learning English for many years, Americans and other native English speakers are handicapped because, until the last few years, you could travel vast areas and work in many places without a second language. The result has been, albeit unintentional, a self-imposed isolationism in limiting ourselves to global opportunities. I know many people outside the U.S. (for example), who speak multiple languages, but not so for most native English speakers. While there may not be the now legendary high-paying (overpaid) expat jobs of ten or more years ago, there are jobs for which you can compete at the same pay scale as others within their local market. But if you don’t speak the language how can you realistically compete? Specialists can still find opportunities in hard-to-fill niche markets but for the rest of us the language barrier is, in my view, the biggest hurdle.
This brings me to a larger point and that concerns our school-age children and my biggest appeal to readers from native English-speaking nations. The world is getting smaller, foreign language skills are more important than ever. If you want your kids to be competitive in the next few decades, they must learn foreign languages; it is the primary limiting factor for native English speakers. Foreign language ability is the Master Key that can unlock doors closed to others. For young people starting their careers, if they have enhanced language abilities, they should be encouraged to investigate possible internships or other international programs that will widen their career potential.
Living and working overseas can be very rewarding and a life-enhancing experience, but it requires forethought with a lot of planning and effort to make it happen.
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