How to Get a Job Abroad as an Expatriate

It seems to be that time of year. My inbox has been filling with requests from contacts and third- and fourth-hand connections asking for time to chat. They want advice or to learn how to be hired for an expatriate assignment or how to get a job abroad.

As with most blogs, this isn’t perfectly comprehensive. It’s only what I can offer based on my experience and what I’ve seen and heard from my peers. Hopefully it will answer some of your questions but leave me more in the comments if I missed anything!

How to Get a Job Abroad and be Hired as an Expatriate

1. Decide if you want to stay with your current company or apply to join a new one.

Staying with your current company is a great option if they have global offices. Of course each company varies on whether they fund expatriates. They may not, particularly if the company has a large potential pool of skilled workers in each location. Ask around.

Even if you stay with your current company, you may have to choose a local package (more below.) For those staying with their company, the next few items apply especially to you.

Side note: if you are American, you should also know that even if your company funds many expatriate assignments you may be a less desirable candidate. The odds are that you don’t speak multiple languages, and you may expect (or need) tax neutralization help which will make you more expensive than, say, someone from your Shanghai or Belgian offices. American headquartered companies seem to make this evaluation less, while companies with headquarters in other regions seem to do this more.

2. Be a top performer. Build a reputation. Develop a network of contacts and find upper-level managers who can ‘sponsor’ you to the Powers That Be. 

Investing in an expatriate is not cheap. Companies usually invest with their top performers or high potential candidates whom are known quantities. You’re probably not a “known quantity” or a top performer six months after joining; so you may need to pay your dues for a few years first. It always surprises me a little bit that this needs to be said, but there you have it.

3. Demonstrate resilience.

We all have coworkers who are not resilient. Somehow everything happens to him. Or it’s always something knocking her off her game and if the situation was better, then she would be a rockstar.

But, as an expat, just paying your water bill can be complicated enough to drive you a little nutty. And that’s before you get to the miscommunication, differing expectations, differing management styles, and differing cultural standards slowing your work at the office. Not to mention the stress your partner and children might be enduring as part of the move. Resilience is crucial for your sanity and your success. Thoughtful companies prescreen expatriate candidates for resilience long before they offer the role.

4. Be flexible on location.

Although some companies may still use expatriate assignments as punishment, I don’t personally believe that many managers want their employees to be unhappy. That said, companies are not travel agencies.

One of the things I find most frustrating is when people say “I really want to live abroad and in a foreign culture,” but they mean “I really want to live in London. Or another English speaking city. Actually I’ve always loved the idea of living in Paris. So Paris is ok, too.” Again, managers don’t want their employees to be unhappy or demoralized, but if all you want is to visit a specific location: go on vacation.

Conversely, be very careful of saying “I would never move to XYZ city/country.” Especially if that happens to be one of the places your company has major offices. There are always exceptions. Maybe it’s the one city in 100 where you company has offices but your partner’s does not. Or maybe it’s a city where the international school system is too small to properly support your special needs child. And hopefully your company will understand and work out another location for you. But understand they may also think: “He’s too complicated. We’ll send Betty instead.”

Plus, keep in mind that it can be difficult to accurately pre-judge the life you will have as an expat in a given city. I strongly disliked Bangkok when I visited as a tourist. But I still accepted an assignment there. And while it hasn’t been an easy experience, I actually liked it much better as an expat than Singapore. (Except for the traffic.)

7. Local or Expat Package?

If you want more control over where you go, or maybe you’ve always had your heart set on living in a certain country, consider a local package option. These are also nice options for trailing spouses/partners.

The most well-known expat packages aim to provide a lifestyle that is considered comparable to the home location. Plus, they are often designed to entice you away from the familiar, your extended family, etc. They may include tax neutralization policies, cost of living adjustments, child and spouse tuition support, home leave trips, and more. As globalization and the number of expatriates increases, I hear about these full-blown packages less and less.

Local packages are simpler. Pay is typically set by host country. But, you may be able to negotiate salary currency. Salary is still based on the job and your applicable experience, and you should be able to reap the same benefits as any other “local” employee.

Many companies (including mine) will happily consider you on a local package and pay for work permits and visas as an extra to a local salary if we already employ you elsewhere. Of course you still need to have the needed skills and come highly recommended. But we will likely consider your interest differently than a random resume.

8. Demonstrate an Interest In Other Cultures

This will vary (greatly) by company, but past expat experience is not a mandatory requirement for a future assignment. I didn’t study abroad in college. I was never a Peace Corps Member, or part of the military. And I didn’t take a year post-graduation to travel the world. That said, curiosity and demonstrated interest in foreign cultures is important because it’s hard to be successful in a foreign country without understanding the context and culture. And if you’ve never tried to understand a foreign culture before you move, you’ll spend more time wondering what the heck you’re missing than doing your job. Going on vacation to a foreign beach will not help.

So the next time you go on holiday, try a homestay. Or a language immersion program. Take courses in foreign cultures, or enroll in a degree program with an international focus. I did all of the above a little later in my career out of interest. It not only helped me in my assignments, but prove my seriousness in asking for an assignment.

9. Language Skills

This is usually the first question people ask me. I’ve left it nearly to the last because everything above might matter just as much. The reality is that speaking multiple languages helps. A lot. But it really depends on the company and the location. I require a translator in Thailand when I speak to the media, which is not an insignificant burden on my staff. But we also require everyone in management at our company to speak English (sort of like airline pilots and traffic controllers.) So my need for translation is rare enough that my company decided it was not a deal breaker. Depending on the company and market, the decision might be different.

 

So there you have it, a quick 9 item list on what to keep in mind. There are lots of other resources on what you can do as an expatriate. I may cover some of those options in a later post so keep in touch.

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