Gen X Goes Abroad
Join the Young Professionals on International Assignments
Less than two years ago, Stephen Kantor was one of 200 relationship bankers with LaSalle Bank in Chicago.
"They all look like me. They all smell like me," said Kantor.
When LaSalle's chief operating officer issued a call for anyone interested in working abroad with the bank, Kantor responded.
Today 28-year-old Kantor is in the midst of a 3-year assignment living and working in Amsterdam for LaSalle parent company ABN AMRO.
And he is one of the growing numbers of young professionals taking advantage of the corporate world's effort to globalize its operations and personnel.
"International work is no longer the province of a few select senior managers, but has become everyday enough to cross the desk of junior people as well," said Margaret Malewski, who has written a book about young professionals — a group she calls GenXpat: the Young Professional's Guide to Making a Successful Life Abroad.
Web editor's note: See an interview with Margaret Malewski
on working and living abroad from the January 2007 issue of Transitions Abroad magazine.
Over the last several years, there has been a steady but noticeable increase in the number of young, typically single, expatriates, said Christy Christian, manager of international operations for ComPsych Corporation, a provider of employee assistance programs to 5,600 companies in 93 countries.
Seasoned professionals were dispatched from company headquarters to make sure that branch offices were in line with the home office. Communication limitations meant the employee had to be highly experienced and reliable.
But that began changing about 10 years ago. Malewski, who is 29 and worked for Proctor & Gamble in the Middle East and Switzerland, observes that speed in the marketplace is essential. In order to remain competitive, companies must take a global approach to new products and services.
"So many multinationals are adopting a form of a matrix structure, where they have some local representation (e.g., sales reps) but much of the strategy is done regionally, to ensure comprehensive regional or global rollouts," said Malewski, adding that this creates the need for several layers of international employees, from entry-level to executives.
Along with the changing nature of business, there are other factors contributing to the increased demand for young professionals. International travel has become less expensive. And GenXpat came of age in a period when air travel became more common.
Companies see young people as more mobile and less expensive. Standard 2-5 year international assignments cost $1 to $3 million per family, so a young, and often single, employee means a lower bottom line.
How to Do It
So how do you take advantage of this expanding market? And what issues do you need to consider? There are a growing number of resources available to start an international career. Here are a few key ideas to consider first.
Get a master's degree. From the social sciences to business administration, a master's degree has practically become a necessity for an international career, said Jean-Marc Hachey, author of "The BIG Guide to Living and Working Overseas."
"Everybody's doing a master's," he said. "It's the new minimum."
Hachey recommends taking two to three years to complete a master's degree, which will allow time for both studying and overseas work experience, such as volunteering or interning. The key is to combine the academic element with practical international experience.
If you are already working for an international corporation, express your interest to go abroad to the human resource department, said Christian of the Chicago-based ComPsych Corporation. She suggests volunteering to work with international teams within the organization as well as joining international professional organizations.
Kantor cites his assertiveness as one of the primary reasons why he was sent to work in Amsterdam for three years.
"No one was looking for me," he said. "I looked at it as this is my career. This is something I want to do and the only one that is going to make it happen is me."
Landing an international job will require you to do something bold, proactive and even risky, said Hachey.
It is important to realize before you make the decision to start an international career that once you live abroad, life at home will never be the same. This occurs in both your professional and personal life.
If your company is sending you overseas, be sure to develop — along with HR and your managers — some objectives for the assignment and outline your long-term career goals. Keep in mind that one-third of employees leave their jobs within a year of returning from assignment, a sign that companies are typically weak at managing their repatriated employees. To avoid this, begin the conversation about what you would like to do post-assignment before you ever pack your bags.
In terms of your personal life, going abroad as a young person poses a unique set of challenges. If you are looking for a partner, this may be difficult as you are not likely to meet the boy or girl next door, said Malewski.
"You may end up bopping around from one 2-year assignment to another, without ever having enough time to settle down and meet your match, and therefore never really finding your roots," she said. "After X years of this, you may want to come home and discover that everyone is already settled and you have missed the boat."
International career expert Hachey stresses the importance of adopting and maintaining a long-term attitude.
"International careers are built over time," he said. "It's a whole series of step-by-step experiences."
Jennifer Hamm is a freelance journalist based in the Netherlands. She has lived in 11 cities, five countries and three continents.