Moving Home? Tips on how to return to work after working abroad
Not all expatriates have jobs to come home to when their overseas assignments come to an end. While global companies may have lateral positions available internationally, smaller organizations may have long filled that old position.
So, what’s an expat to do?
In many ways, expats returning to the workforce face the same problems as anyone who has taken time away from their career.
At least it feels the same: you’ve been out of the local workforce, you’ve lost contact with many of your colleagues, and your skills are dated (maybe even obsolete).
These are real concerns, but there are steps you can take that make your re-entry easier and ultimately, successful.
Our Career Makers and Career Breakers
Get Your Skills Assessed
The first thing to do is get an objective look at what you have to offer now.
“It’s not just the workplace that has undergone transition,” writes the team at Accountemps, an accounting staffing agency. “The entire job search process is constantly changing.”
They say meeting with a staffing specialist, who can assess your skills, can be a good move. You not only can gain confidence in the skills you have that are still in demand, but you might be able to take on a temporary job to build new skills, and update your job experience and references.
These skills include your prowess on social media.
Samantha Zabell at Real Simple says a professional social media presence is imperative, with proficiency on LinkedIn crucial. Although her advice is written for women returning to the workforce after taking time to raise their families, it is equally applicable to expatriates returning home.
Jennifer Gefsky, co-founder of the women’s recruiting platform Après, tells Zabell that laying the groundwork starts well before the interview. “Companies are going to look you up,” she says. “You’ll want to start posting content that’s of interest in the sector that you’re looking to get back into.”
By posting industry-specific content, a potential employer can see that you’ve been “actively research and engaging,” writes Zabell, and “you’ll be able to better sell yourself.”
Upgrade Your Skills or Retrain
Expatriate women who are either stay-at-home moms or were unemployable due to spousal employment restrictions while abroad wind up with a resume gaps. They face a number of challenges when returning home and trying to re-enter the workplace. Some long-term planning can help.
In an Expat Life article, career coach Nicole Supka says to make the effort to upgrade your skills while unemployed — upgrade or retrain completely. The effort will be noticed. “Enthusiasm definitely counts,” Supka says. “Employers like to see that level of determination.”
She also says that volunteerism can provide a sort of timeline of possible interest to future potential employers. If you volunteer in a field related even tangentially to your career, it gives you “...the opportunity to refine transferable skills, learn new proficiencies, develop contacts, and establish some credentials.” All of these should be listed on your resume.
When Kate Rotondo, now an iOS course manager at Udacity, moved overseas to support her husband’s career, the developer dropped out the workforce. The town they were in didn’t offer work, and her skillset was suddenly obsolete with the demise of Flash. She started developing software, attending and speaking at conferences, and getting active in hackathons and social media groups to grow both her skill and professional connections.
Rotondo said that the interview process was extremely difficult after her five-year workforce absence. “There are a lot of obstacles and challenges,” she said of the interviews. “You’re forced to explain and justify your absence. You also have to prove your skills are current. They were often really brutal; I was reduced to tears at times.”
Treating each interview as a learning experience helps, especially if it takes several attempts before you land a job. Each one will help you practice answering difficult questions.
Apply to Startups and Early-Stage Tech Companies
Travel blogger and freelance writer Ashley Fleckenstein took two years off to travel after college. She’s got advice for others looking for entry-level jobs after a gap year (or two), saying that startups and tech companies value “nontraditional backgrounds” more than Fortune 500 companies.
She also recommends applying at a company whose products you use and like. Apps you use daily on your phone are a good indicator of which companies might be a fit. Look for the jobs or careers pages on the company’s website to see what’s available — Citymapper and Duolingo have plenty, for example.
“If you’re a blogger, apply at tech companies,” says Fleckenstein, who has had personal success with this approach, first getting a job with online advertising tech firm sovrn and more recently being promoted to the marketing team.
“Your knowledge of what publishers want and need is more valuable than you might think,” she explains. “As a blogger you have a lot of valuable skills, like content creation, digital marketing, social media, SEO and WordPress, so make sure to list those on your CV.”
Identify Your Transferable Skills
Even skills that don’t seem career-related and are gained from outside the workforce can be valuable. Human resources executive Roberta Fidalgo told career coach Mary Kruger at Noomii Career Blog that she looks for “someone with transferable skills and the willingness to learn.”
"There are many skills that are transferable, such as leadership, sales, project management and problem solving,” says Fidalgo. “For example, these skills can be gained during the time you were providing child or elder care, volunteering in your community, leading the Parent Advisory Council (PAC) at school or managing a renovation. These are absolutely invaluable and can help you in returning to the workforce.”
Look Outside of Your Industry
When returning from an overseas stint, you very likely won’t slide back into your old job. In fact, with the speed at which the workplace is changing, you may need to look outside your previous industry for a lateral career switch.
Keeping an open mind will certainly make the transition easier. “In order to try your hand at something new, or even to reintroduce yourself to your former industry, you might find opportunities with a smaller company at first,” says career coach Maura Koutoujian at Jody Michael Associates, “Consulting or freelancing is another way to ease back into work or explore new avenues.”
And if you are changing careers, use that prior experience to set yourself apart. “If you’re a lawyer, but have no desire to return to a career in law, you’re probably really good at deciphering fine print in contracts and a strong negotiator — skills that could help you rise above the competition during the interview process,” the Jody Michael team writes as an example.
Former Assistant District Attorney for Texas Mia Gardner is a good example of this type of career change. While she did live abroad for a couple of years after her undergraduate degree, her issue wasn’t about finding a job upon her return because she went straight back to school.
Instead, she talked to Puja Javalagi at global energy community Pink Petro about moving from a career that focused on trying child abuse cases to one providing legal counsel in the energy industry.
Her first step was moving to a “maritime firm that focused on insurance defense” where she “got an insider’s look into the oil and gas world.”
“The thing about this industry is once you understand it,” she says, “it is a small step into a contract review, litigation, or risk management role. In my current position at Vallourec, I review contracts, manage litigation, handle real estate issues, and provide employment law and insurance guidance.”
Your Expat Experience is of Value
Gardner also had advice on a topic that can be a stumbling block for expatriates coming back after a long absence: How much am I worth?
“It is a combination of job experience, time in market, and the average pay of your position in that region,” says Gardner. “The best way to determine your worth to the company is to talk to other people in your position or in a similar position. Some people can be private with this information, but most people I have talked to have opened up. Go in with your research done and argue your worth.”
One argument you can use is the very fact that you lived overseas. “A person who has immersed themselves in another culture has the openness and cognitive flexibility to make your organisation more creative,” University of Texas at Austin professor Art Markman writes at Fast Company.
For example, adapting to life in another country allows you to see different approaches to the same activity. The approach doesn’t have to be better or worse than the one you’re used to — just different. In terms of the corporate world, this viewpoint allows the expat to “understand that there are many different ways to achieve a goal,” says Markman, “and there are many different goals that people may find are worth achieving.”
In fact, he encourages company leaders who haven’t worked overseas to seek out employees who have. “Take advantage of the cognitive flexibility they have developed to make your organisation more creative.”
A brand manager at Richards Group, millennial freelance writer Madeleine Hall has had several careers already. And in her piece at Levo, she says it’s definitely OK to take a break from your career path. She did, just after becoming a broadcast associate for a New York morning show, moving to Spain to become fluent in the language and teach English. It was a good move for three reasons, she writes.
First, she says, you’ll be perceived as “confident and fearless” for pursuing your dreams. You’ll also develop skills and abilities that you’ll be able to transfer back to whatever your chosen career path is when you go home.
The second benefit you (and future employers) will reap is your ability to see everything through new eyes. Hall’s first experience of gaining perspective happened at a group meal at a restaurant in Spain.
“To my surprise,” she writes, “my Spanish friend Lucía pulled me aside after the dinner and asked me why I had been so rude to her friends. Horrified, I assured her that I meant no offense, and I asked her where I had gone wrong. It seems I had committed a serious cultural faux pas; it is customary in Spain to say hello and dar besos [give kisses] to every single person at the table before taking your seat. What’s more, texting on your cell phone at mealtime — a behavior that was nearly second nature to me, unfortunately — was a big no-no.”
And finally, that new perspective can help you re-evaluate. You can decide from a wider frame of reference whether the career path you were on before you left is what you really want. In Hall’s case, her time away made her realise that the sacrifices necessary to reach senior new producer in NYC simply weren’t worth it.
“However,” she adds, “you may return from your work sabbatical feeling totally refreshed and ready to take on your job with a new set of skills and a fresh new perspective.”