Foreign affairs

Whether you fancy teaching English in Japan, IT consulting in Atlanta or transferring your current job to the firm’s office overseas, the right research and planning will help put the the world at your feet

Can you imagine spending your lunch breaks seeking out that perfect Parisien bistro? How about lazing beside the river Arno in Florence or shopping on New York‘s Fifth Avenue? No doubt you can, because most people have toyed with the idea of living and working abroad.

The huge growth in international business, and the tearing down of trade barriers, have produced a world in which people routinely travel in the pursuit of their careers.

It is no longer unusual to come across executives who have worked in all of the major continents, and even those who simply spend a year in another country are almost always the more interesting for it.

Regardless of academic achievement and social background, if you have the right attitude and a certain amount of chutzpah, you can work abroad. It just needs some careful thought, plenty of patience and the right plan.

There are two obvious ways to make it happen. The first is to choose a career path/organisation that offers the possibility of moving overseas and then manoeuvre yourself into a position where you are sent abroad.

The other is to decide where and when you want to go, and then set about finding the position that will enable it to happen.

Whatever your route, you are unlikely to regret making a move. George Orwell said the best way to get to know a people was to go and work among them, and he was right. Working abroad is stimulating for a number of reasons.

It is incredibly challenging to work in an entirely new environment, perhaps in another language, not least because it should cause you to question many of your preconceptions and introduce you to a few new ideas.

Culturally it may be very different; if you go to continental Europe you will have to learn to stop and take two hours for lunch no matter what but if you move to the US the opposite generally applies.

Even on a basic level, tasks that are mundane at home, such as shopping for food, suddenly become interesting. Getting a phone connected is a battle just be waiting to be won, and your weekends are suddenly spent skiing/going out into the desert/trekking in the mountains/lying on the beach… Think of the possibilities.

Just as the secret of buying property is location, location, location, the secret of getting a good job abroad is languages, languages, languages.

Unless you are going to work in the English-speaking world, your prospects will be greatly enhanced, or stand or fall, on your knowledge of the local lingo.

How much of it you will require depends upon where you’re going and what sort of company you are joining.

For example, it is relatively easy to work in Holland without any Dutch but quite difficult to work in France without very good French.

That said, plenty of multinational companies – the electronics firm Philips is one – now use English as the language of business and it is quite common to find groups of, say, designers from around the world working in France but communicating in English.

It is worth noting that, even if you find yourself in such a position, it is difficult to integrate into a place without being able to communicate about issues more complicated than the weather.

Any time you spend learning the language of the country in which you want to work will not be wasted. It is not by chance that those who are able to speak the language get the most out of working and living abroad.

The most hassle-free way to move abroad through your job is to join a company in the UK and persuade them to send you to, say, the Rome office.

This removes the trickiest bit – finding the actual job – from the whole moving abroad equation. Even if you work in one of the most sought-after professions, it is still quite a difficult and time-consuming business to secure a job in another country.

As well as the actual job, many firms will provide financial support in terms of relocation costs, as well as help in finding accommodation and, if you are moving to America, the all-important work permit.

You also walk into a network provided by your new work colleagues, and someone will usually be on hand to explain the local customs and deal with any bureaucracy.

Even if it is not your dream job, such an opportunity will enable you to get into the country or city of your choice and to start moving in the right circles.

It is now quite reasonable to say at an interview for a new job that you would like to be sent abroad at some point, as long as it fits in with the firm’s future plans for you. It shows you have ambition and confidence.

Finding a job yourself may be a lot harder but it is by no means impossible. The internet has undoubtedly made the process easier, although it is far from offering a total solution.

The first port of call should probably be the Oxford-based Vacation Work Publications.

It publishes books on every aspect of working abroad and, while a large proportion are aimed the backpack/gap year brigade, there are also plenty of titles for those looking to further their careers. For example, it has just published a book covering internships in the US.

The firm’s Directory of Jobs and Careers Abroad is also a good starting point as are its guides to working in a staggering range of countries.

Once you have exhausted those avenues, you should start approaching companies in your sector directly.

For example, graduates looking to work in Germany should contact large international firms or other institutions that have a history of employing graduates from other countries. has some good advice on this area as well as lists of companies for certain countries. Offering to do unpaid work experience is an excellent way into an organisation.

Perhaps most importantly, there is nothing like looking for work in the city or country in question.

If you can afford the time and money, you will get a much better feel for the local job market than you will from any website. To get there you may need to do bar or seasonal work, or perhaps teach English as a foreign language.

While Sir Henry Newbolt’s dictum: “To be born English is to win first prize in the lottery of life” may no longer be true, to be a native English speaker gives you a huge head start in the race to secure work abroad.

While there are lots of jobs that allow you to move abroad, teaching English as a foreign language deserves a special mention as it is now a huge industry and a career in its own right.

The whole of the rest of the world is learning English and a TEFL certificate is a ticket to ride to almost every corner of the globe. It is a particularly good way of seeing countries like Japan, which can seem rather impenetrable.

TEFL courses can be taken part-time or in the evenings and several universities offer them. The key point is that teaching abroad can lead to other things. Everyone has heard stories of people who went off to teach and ended up with a great job.

Even if you don’t want to teach forever, this is a good way of supporting yourself in situ while you look for the job that will sustain you over a longer period.

Working abroad will be one of the most stimulating things you ever do but, unless you are lucky, it may not happen overnight. You need to start planning your attack and working on your language skills a year or more before you hope to be there.

If you are at first rebuffed, find out why that particular avenue failed and try something else. Don’t give up unless you’ve really exhausted all routes – if that is the case, think about retraining and reapplying in your new guise.

If you do have the patience and persistence to make it happen, you won’t regret it and will probably look back upon your period abroad as one of the most interesting of your life.

One of the problems with searching for jobs abroad on the internet is that most of the pages you will encounter are simply a waste of space.

Many sites act as portals to jobsites in other countries and it is easy to spend hours clicking away without actually uncovering a single vacancy that is relevant to you.

There is, however, plenty of information online about how to make your application relevant to local conditions.

In France, for example, you are expected to write a covering letter by hand and typed letters will not be considered. You could have sent a lot of applications before finding this out.

Success stories

Henry Howell has been working as a ski guide with Mark Warner at the Austrian resort of St Anton. Since leaving school he has worked each winter in the Alps and each summer at a Mark Warner resort in Greece.

“I have just come down off the slopes after a fantastic day of skiing – great weather and plenty of snow – days like today make the long hours we work very worthwhile.

“I have an unusual weekly schedule. Sundays are spent at the airport dropping off and picking up our new guests. After getting everyone sorted out for lift passes, skis etc, Mondays and Tuesdays are spent guiding our guests around the resort. On Wednesdays I’m behind the customer service desk, Thursday I have off, Friday and Saturday nights I’m working behind the bar, and then it starts all over again.

“As soon as I left school I made a conscious decision to go abroad as I wanted to get out and make it on my own.

“My sister had worked a season and the lifestyle really appealed. My first job was working as a barman at the Italian resort of Clavier, and, since then, I’ve done everything from laundry boy to restaurant supervisor.

“At the end of my first season with Mark Warner they asked me whether I would like to go and work at one of their Greek centres. Because I came from a bit of a sailing background, I was eventually put to work teaching windsurfing.

“That’s how my life has been over the past four years – a few weeks off at the end of each season and then on to the next assignment.

“I’ve visited lots of Europe and, while it may be unorthodox, I definitely feel I have a career path in the making.

“Although each posting is usually a six-month contract, Mark Warner really looks after its staff and I’ve gone up the ladder at each stage.

“Do well in this job you need a bit of stamina but, most of all, you need to be good at dealing with people. Languages aren’t that important but having the right attitude is.

“Ultimately, I’m there to sort out any problems our clients have and to make sure they have a great holiday. You’ve got to be able to smile at 11.30pm even though you’ve been up since dawn.”

Peter Magee is now back in the UK after studying for an MBA and working in the US as a management consultant specialising in IT projects.

“I look back on my time in America as a great experience. It was a hugely rewarding place to live and work. We were living in Atlanta during the 90s boom and the Olympics – a really exciting time.

“My love affair with the States began after I decided to study for an MBA over there. I had been working as a software engineer for BT and realised I needed a formal business qualification if I wanted to change my career.

“I applied to Dartmouth business school, one of the oldest in the US, and was lucky enough to get a place. For two years my wife and I lived on campus and it was one of those life-changing experiences.

“At the end of the course I was offered a job at what was then Price Waterhouse Consulting’s New York office. We had an apartment on Staten Island with a view over Manhattan and it was a great time.

“The only problem was that my wife became pregnant and we felt New York wasn’t the right place for children. So I applied through a contact for a job with Arthur D Little in Atlanta helping reorganise its IT consulting division.

“It was a very interesting time for us – my work was very stimulating and the city was really going places. Unfortunately, the money for the project ran out and I was let go but I quickly joined IBM in a similar role.

“It was IBM that sent me back to work in its UK office. It wasn’t as exciting so I left and have set up my own consultancy.

“One of the interesting things about working in America is that it is much more of a meritocracy: people are more interested in what can you can do for them – how you can deliver improved performance or bigger profits.

“At one point I came back to the UK for a job interview and even though I’d been to one the US’s most famous business schools and had worked with some top companies, they were only interested in my O-Levels. It was crazy.”

Neville James got a TEFL certificate after quitting the advertising industry. Now, after two long-term teaching spells in Portugal and Sweden, he is teaching at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston.

“I’d always been very interested in teaching so, when I lost my job in advertising, I decided I would give it a go rather than find another similar job. It was one of best things I ever did.

“I opted to do an intensive month-long course and, at the end of it, my then wife and I headed off to a flat in Lisbon.

“At the start I had a job teaching in a private school in the afternoons but quickly found work at other schools to cover the mornings, and took on a few private pupils, and we slotted into a very nice lifestyle.

“We soon moved to a small town just outside Lisbon near the beach and I found I really enjoyed the teaching.

“Almost all my students were adults, although I had a few young people, and it was a real contrast when I moved to Sweden. I moved there partly because my new partner was Swedish but also because it offered a new challenge.

“All of a sudden I was teaching quite a few high-powered executives, to a much higher standard, and they were looking to take exams.

“It was quite a shock moving from a southern European country to the north, with its long winters, but I found the teaching more interesting.

“Most of my students worked for big companies like Ericsson. They were quite challenging but very rewarding.

“I found the Swedes were not particularly sociable – especially after the Portuguese – but I met a lot of people from other parts of the world and Stockholm is a very beautiful place in which to live.

“Now that I’m back in the UK, partly for family reasons, I look back on my time abroad with great affection. It really is very stimulating to work overseas and I would recommend it to anyone.

“If you are thinking of becoming a teacher, I would say you’ve got to want to do it in its own right and not just see it as a way of going abroad.

“You need to be a good communicator who wants to explain how English functions and, most importantly, have an empathy with people. If you have that, you’ll have a wonderful time.”

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