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Working and Living Abroad in an International Job or Career

Author of Living and Working Overseas in Prague.
Jean-Marc on the Charles Bridge in Prague.

Clay Hubbs: Before I get to my first question, please tell us how this project began and how you've been able to keep it going and growing: What was your own international experience? Why did you see a need for such a compilation of resources? And why has your guide on living and working abroad expanded so dramatically?

Jean-Marc Hachey: As a young professional graduating with a master's degree in political science I was filled with a desire to go overseas. When I announced to my professors that I wanted to work abroad, they were unified in their response: "Impossible! There are no entry-level international positions!" Well, I ignored their discouraging comments. Within three months, I found five international positions — three were well-paying professional jobs, and two were excellent volunteer assignments. I accepted a position with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and had a fascinating experience setting up refugee camps in what was then Zaire.

During my job search I realized that the international job search is different. The resume, the interview, the hiring process — all are unlike what's involved in a domestic job search. I started putting notes in a file, and, when I returned from Zaire, I started work on the first edition that came out in 1992. Since then the guide has been a big hit here in Canada, where it is affectionately know as "the bible on international careers." The fourth edition is the latest, recently released; it has been greatly expanded and updated for both Canadian and American audiences, college students, and professionals.

CH: Picking up from there, what has been the single greatest change in the international employment scene since you began your work?

JmH: The single greatest change in the international employment scene during the past 25 years has been the explosion of international work opportunities in all sectors of the economy; what's more, there are so many more ways to gain international experience prior to finding overseas employment.

There is one thing that has not changed in the international employment scene — overseas employers almost always require that new staff have international experience. Job applicants need to start building their international careers step by step while going to college. They need to possess a high international IQ — they need to be knowledgeable on how to interact with people from other cultures in a cross-cultural work setting.

CH: What are the most common profiles for individuals seeking overseas jobs? Are more business-oriented students seeking work abroad, or is the trend toward liberal arts graduates who wish to live outside the U.S. and Canada — regardless of compensation?

JmH: There is no doubt that the private sector provides many more opportunities to work abroad then any other sector. But this does not necessarily mean that business students are going abroad in greater numbers. There is a proliferation of liberal arts graduates who are building international skills and applying them in the private sector. Whatever their background, most international employees start their careers in the same place: they study abroad, learn a foreign language, travel extensively, intern abroad, take international courses.

The lesson here is you need to gain exposure to other cultures, so that you can become proficient in dealing with people who have a different perspective than you. Do you have an international personality? If you do, international employers want you on their team.

CH: Do you see consequences in job opportunities abroad resulting from the recent trend toward outsourcing? Could anyone have imagined that Americans from top schools in IT would be seeking internships in India or Malaysia in IT?

JmH: Outsourcing will provide more opportunities for more people to move overseas on long- or short-term assignments. Outsourcing is creating numerous new cross-border relationships in all sectors. A professional workforce is emerging in North America to manage these new relationships. And these professionals have a new currency — they have a clearly definable set of "international work skills."

Outsourcing is one of the most important changes reshaping our world. Just like the revolution created by the "containerization" of shipping, which greatly reduced world transport costs, outsourcing is generally raising our living standards.

Labor markets around the world are becoming more mobile, and not just for professionals. In Europe today, English gardeners and plumbers are moving to Spain, Italian teachers are moving to France, and vacationers are retiring earlier by working part-time in their new vacation digs in low-cost Croatia. North Americans are also taking to the road in greater numbers. Many other changes are coming. Southeast China is massively reshaping world commerce. There is no stopping these changes, and those of us who have international experience will benefit and be at the forefront. The rest of the world is on the move, and so should we be.

CH: In the first chapter of your book you write that an effective overseas employee needs a lot more than specialized technical knowledge. "You should have a sound knowledge of the local culture and be able to apply it in your workplace." Can you suggest ways that a prospective overseas employee can gain such in-depth experience when he or she must stay at home and support a family (or finish their schooling)?

JmH: International skills are built by interacting with people from other cultures. You can interact with other cultures here, while at home, by befriending recent immigrants, studying foreign languages, immersing yourself in cultures other than your own. You will need to go abroad, however, at some point, and this is often most easily done during your 20s when you are not hindered by family responsibilities.

Those who break into the international job market have used all kinds of stepping stones in building careers. One example is to teach English overseas to gain experience (there are one billion people in the world who want to learn English). Others use job-hunting vacations to build experience or look for work. In all cases, you will need to take some risks. Your first job may not pay well. You will need to divest yourself of your possessions and move to gain experience. But the rewards are great. The international lifestyle is intellectually interesting, stimulating, and rewarding. The great thing about building an international career is that you may go abroad only once (to study, to learn a language, or to do extensive travel), but you will have memories to last a lifetime. And these memories can be rekindled any time with another international experience, even as you approach retirement. So take the plunge and go abroad now.

CH: While most of us have dreamed of what it would be like to live overseas, few of us have done it. What would you say are the greatest myths or misconceptions about what it's like to live and work abroad?

JmH: Most people have a realistic understanding that it takes courage to leave your friends and family to go abroad — for an internship in Malaysia for example, or to learn Spanish in Guatemala. It is a common practice, however, to underestimate the rewards of international living and work. These are life-changing experiences. People who go abroad are often surprised by how much they learn about themselves and their own culture, and they achieve these insights while learning about how others live and interact.

Another misconception about living overseas is the fear of sickness or political violence. The main fear should actually be car accidents.

If you want to do a self-assessment, think about how you deal with change. The one thing shared by people who are successful overseas (and many different character types do well while abroad) is that they all enjoy change. If you like change, if it drives your curiosity and is coupled with patience, you are a star candidate for successfully living and working overseas.

CH: Assuming you are a university graduate with no international experience and a burning desire to live and work abroad, what is the first thing you should consider doing? (You provided a very thorough answer to a similar question in your article, "Build an International Employment Profile." But in that article your advice is confined to those who were still in university.)

JmH: Find any pretext to go abroad. Teach while traveling; find an internship in your field; live with a relative who may be in Namibia; go boldly and ask to volunteer along your route; pair up with like-minded others in your travels. Make it clear, however, that you are going with the express purpose of gaining professional experience. I know of some recent graduates who have backpacked throughout South America while learning Spanish, visited eco-tourist organizations to volunteer their services to set up websites, wrote brochures and became English-language trail guides. These are the type of career-building experiences that are essential on a resume.

I have already mentioned the route of teaching English overseas, but how about the MBA graduate who goes to Hong Kong and teaches business English? Who will this person meet while teaching? Business people who can hire him or her. Another example is to modify the traditional route of going abroad with a student work visa. Instead of picking grapes in Australia, or bartending in London, why not go abroad with a professional resume and business suit and specifically look for an internship in your field of work? Creative job seekers are generally successful in setting up short-term internships abroad.

CH: Do women face special obstacles in pursuing an overseas career?

JmH: In Canada, women generally make up 70 percent of all the applicants to international sending agencies. Women tend to be more adventuresome and are more successful at long-term cross-cultural integration because they often have better listening and adapting skills. This being said, women do have unique challenges that they must learn to overcome. For example, Western women are often the targets of sexual attention in many countries. Unless you learn to roll with this attention and affect a banter (e.g., "I will sleep with you when it rains frogs!"), you will be frustrated. One of my female friends, a successful engineer in Pakistan, learned always to bring her male driver to meetings. She would conduct interviews and her Pakistani colleagues would answer by speaking to her driver. She accepted this fact and was comfortable with being unable to change the dynamic. Another thing to keep in mind about encountering sexism in other cultures is that foreign women are often freed from the oppression imposed on local women. Whatever your circumstances, women are succeeding in all sectors of the international work environment. If you want to learn more about the successes of professional women on the international scene, there are now many membership groups and other resources on the subject.

CH: What skills are most likely to get you a job overseas and a work permit to make it legal — let's say in Europe?

JmH: There is a big difference between looking for low-skilled, seasonal international jobs and international employment as a young professional. For the backpacking world travelers, legal work permits will always be a challenge, and they often find work under the table. For the young professional interested in an international career, the job search is different however. When a young professional asks about how to obtain a work permit for a specific country, this points to two popular misconceptions about finding their first international job. Firstly, their international employer will most likely be a North American organization or an international organization (and not a local organization in the host country) and it is the employer who arranges the work permit. Secondly, young professionals do not generally target specific countries in their international job search; they target North American employers or other international organizations operating in their sector of expertise. It is the employer who then decides on the country of destination. There are professional international jobs in all sectors, so they are no specific fields that you should be studying except to say that all fields have an international component to them. So study in the field you most love, and then target your research to find the international aspects in your field of work. Good luck with your career!

More by Jean-Marc Hachey
Writing an International Resume
Build an International Employment Profile
Job Strategies While Abroad How to Get the Best "Career Punch" From Your Study Abroad Experience
Marketing Your Study Abroad Experience
Teach English Overseas: A Stepping Stone to International Careers
Related Topics
International Careers

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