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In a recent survey by Windham International, the US National Foreign Trade Council and the Society for Human Resource Management Global Forum, 96 percent of respondents said partner satisfaction is the biggest issue that can make or break international assignments, followed closely by family concerns at 93 percent. More traditional factors such as candidate selection, job expectations and job performance all received lower ratings.
DJ Nordquist, vice president of the Washington, DC-based Employment Policy Foundation, and a former expatriate spouse, says her experience was typical. A public-relations expert working on Capitol Hill at the time of her husband's transfer to Bangkok, Nordquist wanted to support him without losing career momentum. "I represent the new generation of expats," she says. "We have careers and want to keep them up."
Jeri Hawthorne, living in Denmark, tells a similar story. Hawthorne quit her job as an international human-resource manager for Lockheed Martin to accompany her husband on his reassignment to the Copenhagen offices of Nordea, a financial services firm. Protective of her own career aspirations, Hawthorne says, "I knew working was something I was going to want to do. I didn't want to step out of the workforce."
Finding a job as an accompanying spouse requires more than a desire to work. It requires initiative, persistence and resourcefulness. Few companies provide significant job-search help to accompanying spouses; less than one-quarter of the international companies participating in the Windham survey say they assist spouses in finding employment. Even fewer help with career planning or pay job-search expenses.
Other obstacles to accompanying spouse employment include complicated work-permit requirements, high work-permit fees, laws preventing employment of expatriate spouses, cultural differences and language barriers.
Despite these challenges, many accompanying spouses like Nordquist and Hawthorne are refusing to accept the traditional dictum that expatriate spouses can't or shouldn't work. Finding employment at their own initiative, these spouses are proving that their professional careers don't have to take a back seat to those of international assignees.
What's the best way to secure employment if you're an expatriate spouse? Following these six suggestions can help you get started:
1. Begin your search immediately
Nordquist wasted no time launching her job search. "As soon as we found out about the assignment, I started researching companies in Thailand to figure out where my skill set would fit in," she says.
Quickly narrowing down the list to four companies, Nordquist approached them for positions before she left the US.
"I had two responses. One company asked me to call them after I arrived in Bangkok, the other brought me in to the Washington, DC, office for an interview," says Nordquist. The second company, one of the largest public-relations firms in the world, offered her a position in its Bangkok office soon after her interview.
Travis Donner, living just outside Paris, recommends getting the process started quickly, because "it's one thing to find a job, it's another to find a job in the city or area where the spouse has the assignment."
Part of the allure of international assignments for many couples is the ability to spend time doing and experiencing things together that they couldn't do in their home country. Jobs that require long commutes will negate some of the benefits of the expatriate experience.
2. Cast a wide net
Hawthorne took a broad approach to her job search. "When I first heard about the transfer, I emailed everyone-I mean everyone-I knew, including professors, co-workers past and present and my professional society. I attached my resume and asked them to let me know if they had any suggestions."
At the same time, she contacted the Copenhagen Business School, where she was given the names of human-resource directors in the greater Copenhagen area. As a result of these leads,. Hawthorne was able to schedule an interview for a position with an international human-resource group.
3. Arrange for a work permit
In many countries, securing a work permit is a lengthy, laborious process for non-citizens. At the outset, accompanying spouses should research work-permit requirements and draft plans to get one.
Nordquist avoided some of the challenges through ingenuity. "To facilitate the work permit issue, I worked in the Washington office for a few weeks before leaving and was 'transferred' to Bangkok as an existing employee of the firm," she says.
In addition, because she originally entered Thailand on a diplomatic passport that didn't allow employment, Nordquist spent a day in Hong Kong and re-entered Thailand on her civilian passport, gaining the entry stamp necessary to obtain working papers.
Hawthorne was luckier. Her husband's employment contract contained a clause requiring Nordea to secure a work permit for her prior to her arrival in the country so that she'd be free to quickly pursue-and accept-employment.
4. Expand your concept of work
Often, it's difficult for expatriate spouses to find positions similar to those they left behind, making flexibility critical for a successful job search. Expatriate spouses with transferable skills, such as nursing or education, are likely to have the easiest time locating positions.
"Explore every possible opportunity. Don't turn your nose up because you've never done it before or it sounds unusual," says Hawthorne. "If you find yourself not working, look into educational opportunities and volunteer work to keep your skills up."
Donner is a case in point. A chemist by training, he worked in sales for a chemical company prior to his wife's transfer. Although his employer had sales offices in Paris, it declined to hire him for a sales position because he isn't fluent in French. He was told, however, that he'd be considered for a position as a chemist, given the universality of chemistry principles. "The language issue wouldn't have been a problem in the lab," he says.
Donner chose not to return to chemistry. Instead, he's taking classes in web design with a goal of finding a web-related position within the next year. "The Internet is very hot here," says Donner, "so I'm retooling my skills to fit those jobs."
5. Market the benefits of hiring an expatriate spouse
"Accompanying spouses are a good deal for companies because they don't have to pay relocation expenses for the employee," says Nordquist. This means companies gain your skills and experience without having to cover moving costs.
Emphasise the intercultural knowledge and diversity you can bring to your new employers. This is particularly important when seeking positions with companies that have operations in the spouse's home country. You can lend a home-country perspective as well as help develop the cross-cultural understanding necessary for smooth transactions. Hawthorne, for example, recently conducted cross-cultural training sessions for several Scandinavian firms that are expanding their operations beyond their regional borders.
6. Make a career repatriation plan
Mike Schell, chief executive officer of ExpatSpouse, an online resource for accompanying spouses, says that you'll need to plan for your return. "Most spouses who worked before they left will work after they return," says Schell. Cultivate employment experiences with an eye toward long-term career goals. "Planning how you're going to maximize the experiences for your career development is important," he says.
To ease re-entry, Schell recommends staying connected to friends and colleagues at home. Keeping these bridges intact contributes to a smooth transition back into the home-country work force.
What are the odds of finding a job as an expatriate spouse? While the level of difficulty varies by country and the skills of the job seeker, as long as expatriate spouse employment isn't prohibited, most spouses should be able to find some type of position.
"Just be persistent," says Nordquist "There are opportunities out there."
Maureen Minehan is a freelance writer in Washington, DC, who specialises in human-resource management.
Subject: Expat career tips
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