When your partner is offered a career enhancing assignment overseas, you have to decide what you want to do with your career. Some lucky accompanying partners get the opportunity to either join the overseas branch or subsidiary of their current employer or continue their job from abroad via distance working. But the majority are not that fortunate and have to leave their job behind. If they want to hold on to their professional identity, they need to figure out how to find professional fulfilment in their host country.
Finding employment in your new host country is generally hard but is not impossible in most cases. However, it requires a certain mindset and targeted action.
Here are five requirements for finding employment abroad:
1. You need 100% dedication to your job search and to be flexible
Over the years, I have met many expat partners who said they wanted to find a job but they weren’t really taking the necessary action. Finding a job abroad requires dedicated effort, including dealing with frustration and disappointment. Things are not like in your home country so nothing is straightforward. There is a lot of homework to be done including finding out the work visa situation and whether your qualifications are recognised. You need to explore how the recruitment system works and what kind of businesses are present and of a certain size that could be interested in hiring you. You will hit bumps in the road and you need 100% dedication to get through this. You may not find what you are looking for and that is where you need to be flexible. Even if the only job that you can find is not ideal, take it because you will have your foot in the door and become a member of the workforce and with that you are in a much better position to move on to a better fitting role.
When I moved to Taipei, I really, really wanted to work. My professional identity was important to me and I didn’t want to lose it. I put in maximum effort and was totally dedicated to my search and when I landed my first job at the KPMG local office I was over the moon. Over the first few months in the job I was exploring my new environment and finding my feet which was exciting and exhausting at the same time. However, after about six months, I realised that the job wasn’t something I wanted to continue doing. But I had my foot in the door and I was able to move on to an amazing role in the KPMG regional office.
2. You need to make choices about your social life
Once you land in your new country you will soon bump into the local expat community. In most countries, the expat partners don’t work so it will be assumed that you won’t do so either. If the children are in international school there is quite a demand on the non-working parent, usually the mother, to get involved.
When my children were in the American school in Tokyo, especially when they were in Kindergarten, I could have kept myself busy almost full time with activities at school. I didn’t and as a result I was not part of the in-crowd. I didn’t mind because that was not what I wanted.
In larger expat locations you will also come across an active women’s club that organises all kinds of social activities. Again, you can throw yourself in this community and never have a dull moment (Corona virus restrictions aside). But it all comes back to my first point, you have to really want to work because if not, there are plenty of other things you could spend your time on.
3. You need to research why you are special and worth hiring
If you are applying for jobs that local people can perform as well, you have little chance of being hired. For employers, it is much easier to employ a local employee because their education and work experience is understood and they know that the local candidate will abide by the local culture. Hiring a foreigner is a risk in addition to the visa paperwork they may have to deal with.
However, if you bring special skills that a local employee cannot provide and which is interesting for the employer, you have a good chance of being hired. Very often you will be hired because you are foreign and bring skills that locals don’t have. This can be as simple as being a native speaker in a language that is important to them. Another skill that could be interesting is your experience with a large prestigious company or with a competitor. So, it is important to do some research and find out what particular skills and experiences you have that could be interesting to which employer.
When I was introduced by a friend to PwC in Tokyo and I told them I had worked for KPMG for six years, they immediately showed an interest. They knew that I understood their business model and the kind of work they did. If I hadn’t had that experience with one of the big 4 accounting firms, I don’t think they would have hired me.
4. You need to network
Networking is an absolute must if you want to find a job abroad. This doesn’t necessarily mean going to official network events but it is an important part of it. Networking starts with getting to know the people around you. You can talk to the relevant department in your partner’s company to see if they have any suggestions or can introduce you to anyone. You can talk to your partner’s colleagues to ask if they know anyone that could be helpful, the same with your landlord, your neighbours, basically anyone you meet. When you join social events, make sure you get to know the working partners and talk to them about what you are after.
In preparation for these networking activities, you need to have a very clear ‘elevator pitch’ which means, you need to be able to tell the other party in about 30 seconds who you are, what your professional experiences are and what you are looking for.
My first job in Japan came through a networking event where I, and everyone else, had the opportunity to introduce myself to the whole room. What I said was:
‘My name is Wendela Elsen. I am originally from the Netherlands and I have been in Tokyo for about six months. Before I moved here, I lived in Taiwan for six years. I have 15 years’ experience in HR in the financial sector and in professional services and I am looking for a part-time, about 20 hours, role in HR.’
That same evening, I was invited by somebody from Lehman brothers to come and talk to them about a temporary part-time role in HR. I got the job and that is how I continued my career in Tokyo.
I experienced several times at these networking events that people introduced themselves and just said,
‘I am looking for a job’
….. and that was it.
Nobody will be able to help you if you are not clear about your professional background and what you are looking for.
5. You need to accept the local terms and conditions
Your partner may be on expat terms but when you apply locally, it is very unlikely that you will be offered an expat package or anything near it. You will have to be prepared to accept local terms and conditions. Depending on where you are, these can be quite different from what you are used to. Salary levels are related to cost of living and can therefore be quite low if you are in a low-income country. Employee benefits can also be quite a surprise.
When I accepted my first job in Taipei, I had no annual leave entitlement in the first year and in the second year I would build up 7 days! Coming from Europe where I had enjoyed a comfortable 5 weeks a year, this was quite a shock. Fortunately, they said I was allowed to take unpaid leave. Several years later, when I had my children, by law I was only entitled to two months maternity leave. Fortunately, by that time I was in another job and I had built up enough annual leave to add some time to that.
In some countries, working part-time is not a known concept. It is either full time or not at all and full-time hours can be very long. Don’t give up hope if that is the case in your host country and you want to work part time. There are ways of working around this but you have to be creative.
When I found an opportunity in Japan, which is a country where part-time work is not really a thing in professional roles, I set up my own limited company and offered my services on an hourly basis. It needed some convincing but when they realised that there was also an advantage for them, namely that they could easily get rid of me if it didn’t work out, they agreed. Don’t let the rules put you off but think of creative solutions.
The further along you get in your international career, the easier it will be to go through these steps and decide what you want to do. It looks like a lot but what it all comes down to is whether you have the drive and determination to want to find employment. If you are in it half-heartedly, it’s unlikely to be successful.
Be honest with yourself and make the decision, either go for it whole-heartedly or focus your time and attention on other things. Whatever you decide is fine as long as you follow your heart. If you ignore what you really want and pretend to be happy while really feeling unfulfilled, you may end up in a bad place. And remember, you don’t have to do this all alone. There is support from professional coaches, like myself, who understand what you are going through. Ask for help and support and you will get to a place of fulfilment.
Wendela Elsen has been an expat partner for more than 20 years. She is originally from the Netherlands and has lived in Taiwan, Japan and now in the UK. She has been professionally active for most of that time in different capacities. She now works as a coach and helps expat and repat partners find meaningful and fulfilling ways of using their professional skills and experiences, be it in paid work or otherwise. You can read more about her work on her website https://openrabbit.com
©Wendela Elsen, 2021. All rights reserved.