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Leaving North America to Work Abroad

From university students to middle-aged professionals, more and more North Americans are seeking work abroad. With the right preparation and planning, the rewards can be great.

It's hard to know exactly how many North Americans work abroad. There are so many different jobs. Some people might work abroad for a few days or weeks doing consulting. Others spend many years in a foreign country. A person sightseeing abroad might work occasionally to cover bills.

"There are so many definitions of what an international employee is that you just can't put your finger on that number," says Jean-Marc Hachey. He is the author of a guide to working and living overseas.

Working abroad is "definitely a growing trend," Hachey says. One sign of this, he says, is the number of international study degree programs at universities. In 1995, there were 146 such programs in Canada alone. By 1998, there were 314.

"There's exponentially more opportunities and more acceptance today of these types of positions than there was when I graduated from university in '86," he says.

There's a huge variety of work opportunities abroad. You could work as a librarian in Australia. Teach music in Japan. Cook your way around the world by working in restaurants. Work in a refugee camp with a human rights organization. The list is endless.

"Find out what you love, study that, and then find international aspects of that field of work," suggests Hachey. "Whether you're a musician or a scientist or want to be a diplomat, the world is becoming so international that there are international careers in all those fields."

Traditionally, some of the big fields for international work have been accounting, engineering, diplomatic work and international business. Investment in developing countries is also leading to work opportunities.

And people shouldn't just look at Europe and Asia when considering foreign work. A growing number of North Americans are working on a contract basis in Latin America.

"That's the case because foreign investment in all those countries is increasing," says Gustavo Indart. He's a professor of economics. "Foreign companies want to bring their own people, [especially] the technical people."

For students, often the easiest job to get overseas is teaching English. Often, the only requirement is being a native speaker of English. To work for some schools, you need to have at least one or two years of university education.

People all over the world want to learn English. Many companies recruit here in North America. The most popular destination is Asia, but there are also opportunities in South America, Europe, Africa and elsewhere.

"There's a billion people in the world who want to learn English," says Hachey.

"And after one or two years of university, you can go and teach in almost any country in the world where English is not the first language. Many people go on to become a diplomat or an international financier or an international engineer or international whatever, but they use teaching English abroad as a stepping stone."

There are also opportunities for students to study or volunteer abroad. The U.S. Department of State has a Youth Programs Division that offers exchanges to youth.

Finding overseas work isn't difficult. "Basically, the same rules apply in finding work abroad as at home: careful preparation and research and contacts," says Clay Hubbs. He's editor and publisher of the magazine Transitions Abroad. He's also the author of Work Abroad -- The Complete Guide to Finding a Job Overseas.

There are plenty of resources on the Internet. There are Web sites listing international jobs. And many organizations recruit online. There are also many excellent books listing overseas opportunities. You can also look for organizations and companies that send employees overseas.

Hubbs says finding work is easiest for the highly skilled and the unskilled. The highly skilled are, for example, information technology experts, lawyers and doctors. By unskilled, he's referring to anyone whose native language is English, because there's always demand for English teachers.

There are many ways to prepare for an international career. Hachey advises students to hang out with friends who are recent immigrants to the U.S. Try out their foods and meet their families and see how they live. Also, read about other countries and cultures. Connect with people from other countries in chat rooms on the Internet. Study a foreign language.

Most employers view working abroad as good work experience. However, this isn't always the case. When you come back to North America, you might have to convince future employers of everything you gained from the experience.

Hubbs says teachers and information technology professionals, however, would find it relatively easy to find work once they return.

"As a general rule, careers in finance, international sales, education and the high-tech field allow you to move abroad sooner and find employment faster upon returning home than other industries," says Nancy Mueller. She's the author of Work Worldwide: International Career Strategies for the Adventurous Job Seeker.

Mueller says there are many reasons people choose to work abroad. One, of course, is to make money. "Another reason is for personal and professional growth, and to gain additional knowledge, skills and experience which can increase job promotions, [and] salary and benefits packages at home.

"Employees with international experience have a strong competitive advantage in a global marketplace," Mueller says.

"Working abroad also helps increase self-confidence as you discover how to cope and adapt to unfamiliar and unexpected situations far from home. Working internationally also allows you to tap into a vast global network for future job opportunities and long-term friendships with people around the world."

There are challenges to working abroad. It can be tough dealing with cultural differences and feeling lost in an unfamiliar environment. The learning curve is steep, especially the first few weeks. It can be frustrating and confusing. But the experts agree that the rewards outweigh the challenges.

"It is a little scary, but so many people have done it," says Hachey. "And once you do it, you say, 'Wow, what an interesting life,' and you're just hooked."


Finding Employment Overseas
A plethora of tips from the University of Virginia

Finding Work Abroad
This article offers five strategies for your job search

National Center for International Education
Lots of links to help you build an international career

Overseas Jobs Express
Lists jobs around the world

Tips for Americans Residing Abroad
Detailed info from the Department of State

Transitions Abroad
Browse back issues of this bi-monthly magazine

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