Casey Clemence is vice president of human resources for India and the Middle East of a large American engineering company, and he says he is contacted by seven to 10 Americans every day that are looking to get into a career overseas — about half of whom are new college grads. “I think that a lot of Americans are looking for a viable job market,” says Clemence, who moved to Saudi Arabia when he was laid off by Bank of America in 2009 and found the U.S. job market had dried up.
“There is high unemployment in the U.S., and people figure if they can find a gig overseas, pay the bills and pay down their student loans and get some adventure under their belt — bring it on,” says Clemence.
A common route he recommends for job seekers is large accounting firms that have offices from Australia to Switzerland and need everything from auditors to administrators. The foreign service is another route that many people don’t think about, but it’s a great possibility for people who are “culturally alive, good with languages and smart,” says Clemence.
Americans who already have work in the U.S. find that there are opportunities abroad, or that their employers expect them to do an international tour. When Goldman Sachs announced that it would finally be adding 1,000 jobs after the recession, for example, all of those jobs were available only in Singapore.
The Williamses’ move to China was voluntary, but it seemed like a smart move to get ahead. “China and Asia are important to the company’s long-term growth, and companies like executives with international experience,” says Kristy Williams. The couple spoke to families who had done tours in China and Europe before making the move. “Everyone was of the opinion that this will only help you,” she says.
Matt Mullens, a recruiting manager who moved to Kuwait in 1997 shortly after he graduated from college, warns that it's not easy to break into the global job market: "You're competing against educated English-speakers from India and Pakistan who are willing to work for less than Americans are," he says. Ex-pats should also be careful about where they take work — foreign workers often don't have the same rights as native residents, and a company can quickly terminate them without severance and cancel their sponsorship.
The pay-off beyond yen and euros
Some companies offer generous ex-pat packages to entice workers, including perks like nannies, drivers and tuition for private international schools. Mullen followed his then-girlfriend to Kuwait where she took a school teaching job there in the late 1990s. Her travel and housing were paid for, and the couple realized that they could get ahead much faster than on her teaching salary in the states.
"One of the things people in the international community look at is what's my take-home pay versus if I stayed in the states," says Mullen. After tax breaks, housing and transportation stipends, and cost-of-living adjustments, that number can be significant. "If you make $35,000 as a schoolteacher in the states you can maybe save $5,000 if you scrimp," says Mullen. "Teaching overseas, you might save $20,000." The couple, now married with three children and in their late thirties, has used that savings to travel from Bahrain to the Philippines to Mount Kilimanjaro and to buy real estate investments in Arizona.
Another perk of the international lifestyle, says Clemence, is the people: “Tonight, we had Jordanians and Russians at our dinner table — and one of them was in the Soviet Union when it fell apart — those are conversations that it’s tough to find over a burger in Whittier, Calif.,” he says.
The Williamses see their stint as an opportunity for their kids as much as for themselves and plan to enter their children in Mandarin-speaking schools so that they will be close to fluent by the time they leave. “Being so far away from everything forces you to rely on each other and strengthen relationships,” Kristy Williams says.
She also acknowledges that there are hardships that come with living far away from home. Williams doesn’t mind a regular diet of rice and vegetables that she finds at the local market, and hot dumplings that she buys from street vendors. Her kids, on the other hand, often long for pizza and chicken nuggets.
She has to travel miles away to a specialty store to get cheese and American-style milk. Washing machines are tiny, and dryers almost non-existent, so doing laundry for a family of six is a major time drain. Joel’s company provides a nanny for a few hours every day, “but it ends up compensating for the difficulties more than being a luxury,” she says.
Mullens also acknowledges that there is a downside to living far from home. He has missed funerals for two of his grandparents, and while he loves international travel, he's not crazy about the 26 hours of travel to see family back home in Arizona. So far, the trade-offs have been worth it, he says.
Clemence sees far-reaching benefits for his kids in a globalized world. His daughter goes to an international school with Tunisians, Koreans and Jordanians. Last month, she went to Istanbul to compete in the Model United Nations and was voted best delegate from 500 kids from 40 other countries. “How do I measure the benefit to that daughter in her future life?” he says. “No amount of money buys that.”