How to Find Work in Europe
A Practical Overview of Job Opportunities in the EU
By Volker Poelzl
Updated by Transitions Abroad 2/2016
| Piccadilly Circus in London.
The countries composing the European Union have always attracted a large number of expatriate Americans, in part because of Europe’s culture, history, and scenic beauty, but also because the continent once offered many well-paying jobs for foreigners. Even now, over a 1.6 million Americans currently call Europe their home—from digital nomads to interns to government officials to corporate employees in financial centers. The draw of the “Old World” for North American citizens continues unabated. Unfortunately, the recession in Europe has dampened the prospects for Americans to find work in Europe. Most European countries have high unemployment, government cutbacks, and reduced growth. Yet, despite the current slowdown, there are still jobs available for foreigners in a variety of fields and roles, though greater research on the part of the person seeking a job is required than in developing world countries. Below I have outlined several options for people who are interested in working in Europe but do not have European citizenship or a residency permit.
Few European employers will be interested in hiring Americans who have little or no work experience in Europe. This is why you need to gain international experience early in your professional career. Get your foot in the door by learning a European language and pursuing a summer job, language course, and/or internship in the country that interests you the most. Doing so allows you to get to know the work culture in a given country, as well as visa and work permits requirements, tax laws, benefits, rights, and obligations, etc. as an employee in the European Union. And when you apply for a real job in Europe later on, your previous experience and exposure to the working world will prove very useful.
If you want to successfully compete with local candidates for a job in Europe, you need to prove that your skills exceed those of your competitors. For many jobs, excellent knowledge of the local language is essential, and having a working knowledge of German, Spanish, or French will significantly improve your chances of getting a job offer. There are also many multinational companies that are looking for American or English-speaking candidates. However, keep in mind that during times of economic slowdown, fewer multinational companies are planning an expansion of their overseas operations. However, New York is now getting fair competition for corporate jobs as a financial center from cities such as London, Frankfurt, and Milan.
Each country has its own procedures and etiquette for job-seekers. Instead of learning from your own mistakes, it is better to learn about the details of the job application process ahead of time. Buy a book about Living and Working in your country of interest or research on the Web to gather as much information as possible. The job application process varies from country to country. Many countries in Europe have very bureaucratic and meticulous requirements, such as official certificates and diplomas documenting your education, training, and past work experience that often need to be accompanied by certified translations in the local language. The new EU Blue Card offers some pathways to work in Europe for people from selected countries, including the U.S.
Having professional skills that are in great demand is your best way to get a job offer from a European company. Unfortunately, due to strict labor laws, Americans have a significant disadvantage over Europeans when it comes to finding a job in the European Union. Citizens of the EU can work in any member country of the EU without a work permit, but Americans need an employer to sponsor their work visa. And even if you are lucky enough to get a job offer in the EU, your employment contract still needs to be approved by the respective Labor Department, which will determine if you are the best candidate and if your position could also be filled by a local candidate. However, most European countries have shortages of skilled professionals in certain fields, such as engineering, information technology, health care, and teaching. If you fall into this category, your application for a work permit will be speedily expedited, and you have a good chance of getting approved. In addition, if you do land a job as a skilled professional, protection from being laid off from your work is many times more stringent than the U.S. due to labor laws. Finally, there are many multinational companies based in or with branches in Europe, and if you speak the language, have the right skills, it is possible to get an expat package.
As Europe’s population rapidly ages, there is a constant demand for young entrepreneurs and professionals who can inject new ideas and entrepreneurial skills into European economies, either by opening businesses or by working as highly skilled self-employed professionals. If you fall in this category, you do not need a job offer. All you need is to demonstrate exceptional professional skills and enough funds to get started. Europe’s major economies all offer such programs. France has recently changed its immigration law by offering the “Skills and Talents" permit, a new program for people that can make a considerable cultural, artistic or economic contribution to the country. Germany has enacted a ban on recruiting foreign labor for unskilled and less-skilled workers, and even for the most skilled workers. However, the government still allows self-employed professionals to live and work in Germany if your planned business or activity is expected to have a positive economic effect.
There is always the option for digital nomads to create blogs and websites allowing them to sustain themselves while living in Europe. The key is navigating the EU and independent visa process—which has been accomplished by many, but is no easy task in this time of unemployment and protectionism.
There are paid internships offered by companies and organizations all across Europe that are aimed at young people regardless of their academic status. Check out our “Internships in Europe” section. Most of these seem to be concentrated in Spain, some in Italy and Germany, though BUNAC does offer internships in England. Often there is a fee associated with an internship program, but in terms of building an international resume, in an era when unpaid internships are so common among college graduates in the U.S., the investment can be well worth the cost in the eyes of future employers at home and abroad.
The job market for English teachers in Western and Central Europe has tightened in recent years, either due to decreased demand or overabundance of qualified native English speakers. Many language institutes and schools across Europe require a TEFL or CELTA certification in addition to a college degree, as is the case in more and more countries worldwide. Preference is usually given to English-speakers who are already citizens or legal residents, but there are exceptions when it comes to teaching jobs in Europe. However, in the new member countries of the EU in Eastern Europe, non-EU citizens still have a good chance of landing an English teaching job.
Unless you have highly desirable job skills that cannot be performed by a local, or have a convincing business start-up plan, significant amounts of investment funds, your only other options are seasonal jobs or working under the table. There is a great need for seasonal and temporary workers across Europe, especially in agriculture, construction, the hospitality industry, and tourism. If you are OK with lower wages and temporary employment in exchange for a longer time abroad, you will probably be able to find work and make enough money to get by in Europe and even save a little bit. Some EU countries have made it fairly easy to get work permits for seasonal work, but unfortunately your salary will be little more than the minimum wage. There are several programs and organizations that are referred to in Short-Term Jobs in Europe that can help you get a temporary or seasonal work permit. If you opt to work under the table, keep in mind that you are competing with legal seasonal workers from developing countries and that many European countries impose heavy fines on businesses that hire illegal workers.
If your dream is to live and work in Europe, it is primarily a matter of research and determination.
Volker Poelzl is a Living Abroad Contributing Editor for TransitionsAbroad.com. He has traveled in over 40 countries worldwide and has lived in ten of them for study, research and work.