In tough market, some job seekers go abroad

By Eve Tahmincioglu
|  Monday, Mar 29, 2010  |  Updated 1:37 PM CDT
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In December 2008, Matthew Moughan graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee at the height of the recession and, not surprisingly, couldn’t land a job.

“I kept getting the same responses from most companies that they were not hiring at the time,” he said.

So he expanded his search outside of the nation’s borders.

He landed an internship with Electronic Shipping Solutions in London through San Francisco-based Intrax Internships Abroad and then got a full-time job offer from the firm.

“One thing I would tell anyone who has the slightest thought of going abroad is to just go for it,” he said. “Whether it is for work or to study, the overall experience that you will gain is invaluable.”

Amy Raslevich, 38, and her husband, Jeff Kelly, 39, along with their two young children moved in February from Pittsburgh to Maastricht, the Netherlands, because Kelly took a foreign assignment offered by his employer.

The couple thought international experience would bode well for Kelly’s career, but Raslevich, who left her job as a executive director of a nonprofit to make the move, isn’t sure she will be able to find work. The laws allowing noncitizens to work are strict, she said, and there aren’t a lot of jobs for foreigners because the unemployment rate is high in the Netherlands.

“I don’t know what my resume is going to look like,” she said. “It’s kind of scary.”

With an anemic job market in the United States, many are looking beyond our shores to find employment or advance their careers.

International experience is often seen as a plus for career enhancement. But finding employment abroad is anything but easy, especially if you’re not moving with an existing employer. Furthermore, becoming an expatriate can be a major adjustment.

Finding a job abroad
Despite the challenges, many job seekers are eyeing foreign lands as possible career saviors or enhancers.

“Obviously, the recession is bringing out many people who can’t find a job and want to look abroad,” said George Eves, founder of online expatriate guide Expat Info Desk. But, he said, opportunities in foreign lands are not as abundant as they were just two years ago.

Intrax Internships Abroad, the company that got Moughan his internship in London, has seen a growing interest in work overseas, said Terry Cumes, managing director.

“They need different ways to differentiate themselves in this economy, and there are also fewer opportunities in the United States,” he said about graduates. “We’re even getting calls from MBAs now.”

One of the main ways workers end up as expats is when they are sent abroad by their employers. While such assignments have dwindled during the recession, there are signs things may be turning around a bit.

About 12 percent of multinational firms plan to cut back foreign assignments this year, compared with 25 percent who said they would reduce such jobs last year, according to a report published by Brookfield Global Relocation Services.

But companies are still tightening their expat budgets, said Tom Flannery, a partner at consulting firm Mercer. “More focus on shorter-term assignments, or commuter assignments where someone is located in a central location and then commutes to different offices or plants,” he said.

Job seekers — especially younger workers — who think they can pack their bags and just head to a foreign land for work might be in for a rude awakening.

The unemployment rate for young workers is more than 40 percent in Spain and 20 percent in France, said Cumes of Intrax Internships Abroad. The high rate of joblessness is making an already difficult process of getting a work visa even harder for expats today, he said. To take a job from a local in Europe right now, he added, you’re going to have to have some really impressive, unique skills.

Jobs teaching English, which at one time were plentiful, especially in former Soviet bloc nations, are not readily available these days, said Eves of Expat Info Desk.

While many countries have been hit by the recession, Asia is a bright spot, Mercer’s Flannery said. Industries such as high tech, finance and the automotive industry continue to see growth there, he added.

Asia is where Michael Julian decided to focus his attention after his job search in the United States hit a dead end.

After graduating from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, he interviewed with financial institutions and even Teach for America, but no job materialized.

“A close friend and personal mentor of mine suggested I look at opportunities in Asia, as there has been so much buzz around this economy being the next big market,” he said. “Only two weeks after I began focusing on Asia, I found myself saying goodbye to friends and family, and on a plane due east to Singapore.”

He was able to land an internship at an IT consulting firm called Ridge Asia, and after three months landed a job as a business development consultant for Oracle in Singapore.

“Back home, it would have been nearly impossible to secure a job with a Fortune 50 company such as Oracle, with the down economy,” Julian said.

Adjusting to a new life
Once you land a job, the hard part may just be starting.

For many expats, adjusting to their new home can be a culture shock, especially for the employee’s family.

Cartus, a relocation company, found 88 percent of firms it surveyed reported some level of foreign assignment failures in the past three years. At the top of the list was that the family was unable to adapt to the new country, followed by the employee unable to adapt. Termination was the third-most common form of failure.

Moughan adapted well to London because he had done a work-study program in the city while in college, but work life was a different story.

“One of the harder things to get adjusted to was the office-culture setting,” he said. “Despite the fact that England is an English-speaking country, it is an entirely different culture and a different language to an extent.”

To survive as an expat “you have to be very determined,” said Eves, whose company offers an expat manual on its site, including a section dedicated to Americans moving abroad. “Just dropping in and fitting in from Day One is going to be difficult.”

Another issue to consider is the possibility you could lose your foreign job.

“In this case, the employee will be unemployed in another country,” said Margery Marshall, president of Vandover, a firm specializing in the mobility of talent pools. 


The country may have restrictions on foreigners staying who are unemployed, and that means you’ll have to move quickly to find another job abroad or get one back in the states.

That’s why she advised that workers maintain their networks, including online social networks such as LinkedIn.

Despite some drawbacks, Marshall said the expat experience has one big advantage. “Global experience is becoming more important and more valuable in the workplace, and can give employees an advantage when it comes to long-term career development,” she said. 


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