Experience a Foreign Culture from the Inside
By Susan Griffith
In hopes of soothing the minds of the irresolute, here are some general guidelines to preface the unprecedented amount of specific information and contact addresses included in this fourth edition of Work Abroad.
Some travelers have future career prospects in view when they go abroad; a few go in search of highly paid jobs. Success is easier for people with acknowledged qualifications such as nurses and pipe-fitters, though cherry pickers and pot washers have been known to earn and save substantial sums. Those on open-ended trips may decide to postpone cashing their last traveler’s check by looking around for ways of boosting their travel fund. They may find paid work, or they may decide to volunteer their labor in exchange for a bed and board. Most of the information in this volume concerns short-term work—12 months or less. For help on how to prepare for an international career and find a permanent job, see Chapter 1. Professionals should also consult their own trade’s associations and journals.
The aspiring working traveler either arranges a job before leaving home or gambles on finding something on the spot. Pre-arrangement is especially important for people who have never traveled abroad and who feel some trepidation at the prospect. Jobs can be pre-arranged either through private contacts or with the help of a mediating organization.
Some organizations accept a tiny handful of individuals who satisfy stringent requirements; others accept almost anyone who can pay the fee. Many work schemes and official exchanges require a lot of advance planning since it is not unusual for an application deadline to fall six or nine months before departure.
While it’s easy to arrange a job to teach English in the former Soviet Union, the price you pay for this security is that you commit yourself to a new life, however temporary, sight unseen. Furthermore, a participation fee in some cases can be as expensive as booking a conventional vacation.
The alternative to these packaged arrangements is to wait until after arrival at your destination to explore local job possibilities. In the course of research for my book, Work Your Way Around the World, I have come across many examples of fearless travelers who are prepared to arrive in a foreign city with very little money, confident that a means by which they can earn money will present itself. In most cases it does, but not without a few moments of panic and desperation.
Like job-hunting in any context, it will be much easier to contend with the inevitable competition if prospective employers can meet you in the flesh and be assured that you are available to start work the minute a vacancy crops up. For casual work on farms or arranging a passage on a transatlantic yacht, a visit to a village pub frequented by farmers or yachties is worth dozens of speculative applications from home.
The more unusual and interesting the job the more competition it will attract. Less glamorous options can absorb an almost unlimited number of people. International workcamps, for example, mobilize thousands of volunteers from many countries every year who come together to build footpaths, work with disabled persons, etc.
Work permits and residence visas are not readily available in many countries and for many kinds of jobs. In most cases, job-seekers from overseas must find an employer willing to apply to the immigration authorities on their behalf well in advance of the job’s starting date, while they are still in their home country. This is easier for nuclear physicists and foreign correspondents than for mere mortals, though in certain countries English teachers are welcomed by the authorities. In organized exchange programs, like the ones administered by Council on International Educational Exchange (see Chapter 2), the red tape is taken care of by the sponsoring organization.
Temporary jobs like apple picking and burger flipping will never qualify for a work permit, and unofficial employment can quite often lead to exploitative working conditions.
Improving Your Chances for a Short-Term Job
Preparation will improve your chances of convincing a potential employer of your superiority to the competition. For example, before leaving home you might take a short course in teaching English, cooking, word processing, or sailing—all skills that have been put to good use by working travelers. If you are serious, you might learn or improve your knowledge of a foreign language.
Even if you are not lucky enough to have friends and family scattered strategically throughout the world, it is always worth broadcasting your intentions to third cousins, pen friends, and visiting Asian professors. The more widely publicized your travel plans, the better your chance of a lead.
If you set off without an address book full of contacts, your fellow travelers are undoubtedly the best source of information on job prospects; most are surprisingly generous with their information and assistance. Youth hostels can be a gold mine for the job seeker. Jobs may even be advertised on the notice board. Any locals or expatriates you meet are a potential source of help. Any skill or hobby, from jazz music to motor car racing, can become the basis for pursuing contacts.
Local English language newspapers may carry job advertisements appropriate to your situation, or may be a good place for you to advertise your services. The most effective method of finding a job overseas is to walk in and ask. As in any job hunt, it helps to have a neat appearance and show keenness and persistence. If you want a job for which there appear to be no openings, volunteer. If you prove yourself competent, you will have an excellent chance of filling a vacancy if one does occur.
Seasonal jobs are most likely to go to itinerant foreigners. In times of recession the number of temporary jobs available may even increase since employers are not eager to expand their permanent staff but need extra help at busy times. Farmers and hotel/restaurant managers are the best potential sources of employment, and in most cases one setback leads to a success once you are on the track.
Young women and (increasingly) young men who want the security of a family placement and who may also wish to learn a European language may choose to live with a family, helping to look after the children in exchange for pocket money. Such positions can be found on the spot by means of advertisements or in advance through agencies.
English teaching normally requires some experience and a 9-month commitment, though many travelers from Bangkok to Buenos Aires have used the yellow pages to direct them to local language schools willing to employ native speakers of English as conversational assistants.
Paid work in developing nations is rarely available, yet many travelers arrange to live for next to nothing while doing something positive. Charities and aid organizations offer a range of volunteer opportunities around the world. Many volunteer agencies require more than a curiosity about a country; they require a strong wish to become involved in a specific project and in many cases an ideological commitment to a cause. Almost without exception, volunteers must be self-funding.
For anyone with a green conscience, conservation organizations throughout the world welcome volunteers for short or long periods in projects ranging from tree planting to gibbon counting. Unfortunately, the more glamorous projects, such as accompanying scientific research expeditions into wild and woolly places, charge volunteers a great deal of money for the privilege of helping.
Whether you set off to work abroad with the help of a mediating organization or with the intention of living by your wits, you are bound to encounter interesting characters and lifestyles, collect a wealth of anecdotes, increase your self-reliance, and feel that you have achieved something. Inevitably there will be some surprises along the way.
SUSAN GRIFFITH is co-editor of Work Abroad and contributing editor for Work Abroad for Transitions Abroad Magazine. See Susan's bio for more information about her extensive bibliography.