The Benefits of Becoming a Local
To Work Abroad Successfully, Put Down Roots
When most people start thinking about working abroad, they generally fall into one of two camps. Those in the first camp plan on securing a solid job before they go. These people intend to spend anywhere from a summer to several years in a foreign place, with a relatively set idea of how they will spend their workdays.
The other camp is made up of floaters, those trying to pick up travel funds that will allow the journey to continue. If it were possible, these people would love nothing better than to work a month here and a few weeks there, seeing the world and staying on the move—bartending, fruit picking, or whatever else, as long as they can work under the table and not have to stick around very long.
Unfortunately, both options come with plenty of hurdles. Trying to set up everything in advance requires, for the employer, a major leap of faith. The person doing the hiring would much rather hire someone they know. In much of the world, in fact, a business owner would really prefer to hire a relative or friend who needs the money. Family comes before an unknown person from the other side of the world. The exception to this is cases where only a foreigner can do the job (such as a certified English as a second language teacher), or where a foreigner is better for business (such as “animation director” at a resort hotel). When demand for these positions outweighs supply, as it does for English teachers in much of Asia, it is not uncommon to be able to set up a job before leaving home. In most other cases, looking after arrival will be much more productive.
The hurdle for the floaters is the question, “Why you?” Why should a restaurant owner hire a foreigner who is going to leave a month later, when people with more permanence are available? Rick Goossen, assistant professor of entrepreneurship and law at Trinity Western University in British Columbia, spent many years working in Hong Kong. “University students in my class will make comments like, ‘I want to find out how to work overseas. I’d love to go to London for two months and then Paris for two months and then maybe Milan.’ Yeah, wouldn’t we all love to get paid to do that! But it’s not going to happen.” Put down roots somewhere, however, and it’s a different story.
Why It Pays to Be a Local
When my wife and I worked as English teachers in South Korea, we initially arrived thinking we had jobs, but they fell through when it turned out that the recruiter had botched our arrival date. After one false start, we ended up meeting with the head recruiter of a chain of schools for children and signed a 1-year contract to teach at a school in a suburb of Seoul, starting immediately. After being there a while, opportunities started to fall in our laps. Strangers would literally stop us on the street and ask about private lessons. Acquaintances would give us their private lesson clients when they left to go home. My wife even got a one-off job for Samsung transcribing a recording of a long meeting that had been held in English. After a while, we were making so much money on the side that we wired home our entire regular paycheck each month.
Adam Berg left New York City and arrived in the southern Kyushu province of Japan to stay a while with his fiancé, who was teaching English. He soon fell into a job teaching English to executives at nearby companies, including Honda. Being a kind of local celebrity—the tall, English-speaking foreigner—the agency he worked through kept pulling him into other jobs. “I appeared in some odd promotional video for a doctor and was also hired to do a 2-word English voiceover in a radio commercial,” he says.
It is not just English teachers who have this kind of luck, however. Nearly any expatriate who has spent time in one place for a while usually manages to land at least one job. Goosen advises people to research and find the right destination, fly there, and get settled. “When I first went to Hong Kong I had no prospects and, at that time, a law degree but no bar qualification. I went knocking on doors for 30 days and eventually got a job with the largest law firm in the city. It never would have happened if I had not taken the initiative and made a commitment to staying for the long haul.”
Finding Opportunities, in Time
Sometimes “over time” means a few weeks or a few months. When I went on a white water rafting trip in Arequipa, Peru, my guide was an American named John Mount. “I had been teaching English here for two months,” he explains, “then one day I walked past this tour company that did rafting trips. I had been a rafting guide in Colorado, so on a lark I walked in and asked if they needed any guides. ‘You speak English and you live here?’ they asked, surprised. A few days later I was on the river.”
Ron Ferguson, a Canadian now living in Scotland, moved to a Greek island just to party and see what would happen. He ended up opening a bar with a local partner. (“It was cheaper than paying for my drinks all the time,” he decided.) A friend who owned a hotel noticed that he was good at graphic design and asked him to make menus. Word spread and he eventually couldn’t keep up with demand from other restaurant owners. Then one year his landlord asked him if he could do some building work. “He offered me my apartment rent free in exchange for building a garage over the winter. Then he kept giving me other projects, including some work on computer-designed building plans. All in all I lived for three years rent free.”
After selling his share of the bar and moving to Scotland, Ferguson fell into another job there designing and selling decks and has been doing it ever since.
The Power of Networking
When you spend time in one place, you get a chance to form bonds and meet people who can help you. Anyone who has lived in a foreign place for some time will tell you the expatriate population becomes an intimate community and an interweaving of characters worthy of any soap opera. When you plug in, you are instantly connected to a large network of people who are constantly in social contact.
Rebecca Grossberg of New Jersey moved to France in 1997 to house sit for a woman her grandfather knew, and she is still there. While house sitting, Grossberg found an au pairing job and some work in a hotel run by a fellow American. “Then I decided to move to Paris. Through a friend of a friend of a friend, I found contact details of companies interested in Americans.” After making lots of calls, she ended up with a job offer from one of the largest advertising agencies in France, working on a huge multi-national campaign. After some time going back to school in France, she is now working for a program funded by the European Commission. “None of the jobs, even the one I have now that I’m married and have legitimate working papers, I could have found if I hadn’t been here first,” she says.
Advice for Finding a Job Abroad
If you are planning on moving abroad for an extended period to work, the following tips can make it easier:
Go where the jobs are.
This seems obvious, but it is surprising how many travelers ignore this advice. For the most part, you will have better luck in big cities, business centers, and places where a lot of transactions are done in English. This can include resort areas, but only if thousands of foreigners are coming through at all times: an idyllic little island with two hotels is going to be much tougher.
Take enough money to get started.
Some people arrive somewhere with $50 in their pocket and manage to make it work, but this is stressful and risky. Plan on arriving with at least two month’s local living expenses to get established and rent a place to live. In cheap countries, $1,000 could be plenty, but in Tokyo or London, plan on five or six times that amount unless you have an open invitation to stay with a friend.
Get to know people.
Arriving in a new country, the worst thing to do is be a wallflower. Get out, meet people, and be open about your skills and the type of work you are looking for. Make yourself top of mind with the people who can help you and don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions.
Don’t be picky and assume your first job will be your last.
The longer you are in a place, the more opportunities you will have and the choosier you can be. Make a good impression, make good contacts, and earn people’s trust. Then things will fall into place.