Ask the Expat
Work in Europe
A Practical Overview of Job Opportunities in the EU
By Volker Poelzl
The countries which compose 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 in because Europe used to offer many well-paying jobs for foreigners. Over a million Americans currently call Europe their home, and the draw of the “Old World” for North American citizens continues unabated. Unfortunately, the ongoing global recession has significantly dampened the prospect for Americans to find work in Europe. All European countries suffer from high unemployment, government cutbacks, and reduced growth. But despite the current crisis there are still jobs available for foreigners in a variety of fields and roles. 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. This allows you to get to know the working culture, 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 working in Europe 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, few multinational companies are planning an expansion of their overseas operations.
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. Some countries 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.
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.
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. The UK offers the similar “Tier 1 Visa for General Highly Skilled Migrants” (formerly known as the highly skilled migrant program–HSMP). 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.
Unfortunately, the U.S. only has short-term work exchange agreements with a few European countries. The agreement allows to you to work in France (up to three months), Ireland (up to four months), and the U.K. (up to six months). Rules and regulations vary from country to country. The U.K.’s new program requires students to arrange employment ahead of time, whereas the programs in Ireland and France are not employer-specific. This means that students can take up any job anywhere in the country, giving them great flexibility about what work experience they would like to gain. In the U.S. the program is administered by BUNAC.
In addition to work programs designed exclusively for college students, there are many 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.
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. Preference is usually given to English-speakers who are already citizens or legal residents of the European Union. 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 all across Europe, especially in agriculture, construction, the hospitality industry, and tourism. If you are happy with low wages and temporary employment, 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 in most cases. 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.
Volker Poelzl is a Living Abroad Contributing Editor for TransitionsAbroad.com. He has traveled in over thirty countries worldwide and has lived in ten of them for study, research and work.