Working abroad may sound glamorous but if you do not plan your assignment carefully, it could hinder your career upon return. Emma Bird finds out why.
When Clare Warman, an international management graduate, had had enough of her job as a business analyst with a large British corporation, she handed in her notice, put her house on the market and headed off on a round-the-world trip.
After soaking up the sights in Singapore, Thailand, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, she ended up in France where she spent the winters working in ski resorts and the summers managing hotel barges.
“It was so much fun,” says Clare, now 29. “I no longer wanted to be in the corporate world because it was not really me. The compelling reason was I had always wanted to go travelling and I wanted to go in my twenties rather than getting to my thirties and still thinking about it.”
But when she made the decision to finally come home, there was just one problem – she could not find a job. There is no doubt that Clare was qualified – after all, she spoke fluent French and had all the transferable skills necessary – but by not going on grown up assignment, it seemed she had priced herself out of the market.
“Recruitment consultants just did not understand it,” says Clare. “They would look at my CV and tell me there was no pattern to my work history and they could not find me a job. It was hugely frustrating because I knew what my experience was worth.”
Unfortunately, Clare’s situation is a common one. Not all employers recognise the benefits that working overseas can bring even though more and more graduates are increasingly opting to study, live and work outside of their home countries in pursuit of professional success and adventure along the way.
According to Margaret Malewski, author of GenXpat: the Young Professionals Guide to Making a Successful Life Abroad (Intercultural Press), living and working internationally can be a CV-boosting challenge – but only if you prepare for both the move abroad and the move back home.
“On a personal level, globetrotting can be considered an accelerated school of life,” says 30-year-old Malewski who spent a decade overseas in Poland, Switzerland and Israel before moving to Vancouver and becoming a cross-cultural trainer.
“Encountering new values and ways of operating in the various countries they visit forces young people to acknowledge and deal with differences far earlier than those who have never left home and live with the circle of friends they have had since childhood.”
Nevertheless, Malewski stresses the need for employers to wake up and realise that living a normal working life abroad entails time management skills, personal resilience and resourcefulness.
“The big caveat from a career perspective is returning home to companies who do not have any international operations or who do not deal with immigrants, foreigners or tourists,” she says. “People in those kinds of companies are less likely to have travelled and will not necessarily understand or appreciate the learning experience and added value of someone who has lived and worked abroad.
“Some will confuse working abroad with a ‘gap year’ taken to have fun. Others will simply think ‘he worked abroad, what’s the big deal?’ failing to realise that doing the simplest thing in a foreign environment is a challenge.
Finally, many such employers will see the time abroad as time away from the home market, a hole in the candidate’s resume when compared to someone who has been working at home all along.”
In order to make your expat experience – whether cleaning ski chalets or overseeing marketing accounts – valid, you need to be confident of its benefits.
Tamara Molinas is currently working as an HR generalist for Nike in Amsterdam, where she transferred from Milan. Given her Italian-Dutch roots, she was always curious about different cultures but the travel bug bit when she spent six months on an Erasmus exchange at Brighton University as a 22-year-old.
“Being overseas by myself was brilliant,” she reflects. “Although my mum is Dutch, I didn’t grow up speaking the language and only knew Holland from holidays. As an Erasmus student, I did a great deal of growing up, learnt English, found a job babysitting and had the chance to learn how to relate to people from a different culture.”
Tamara, who has also worked in HR at Pirelli, Vodafone and Prada, believes her Erasmus experience was key to securing her job with Nike. “I value my experience as a foreign student in England as much as being part of a multi-cultural team in Amsterdam,” she says. “I make sure my CV reflects the transferable skills I have learnt as a result. I think it’s all about confidence. If you believe 100 per cent in your time abroad, you can convince your potential employer, too.”
But beware. Don’t make the mistake of leaving the job hunting for your return home. As soon as your flight is booked, start contacting former colleagues, mentors and friends to find out about potential opportunities.
Expat Expert Robin Pascoe goes one step further and suggests expatriates on the verge of repatriation should write a mission statement. This, she suggests, can focus your mind and get you thinking about what you really want to do.
“It does not need to be long, in fact two sentences will do. Even just five words will work. I write books for expatriates. That is mine, but it took me over two years upon my own re-entry to see that.”
As for Clare, she finally landed a job as purchasing executive for Neilson Active Holidays where her stints abroad were highly valued. “I was able to explain my skills and background to them,” she says, relishing the opportunity to build upon the aspects of working abroad she enjoyed most. “And what I could contribute as a result.
“I am abroad two weeks out of four and have just come back from skiing on the job. I have finally found something I love doing and it is all thanks to travelling and working abroad.”
Emma Bird’s first taste of life abroad was as a 17-year-old intern on a French newspaper. She has worked in the UK, France, Germany and Italy and is the founder of the site www.howtoitaly.com