Saturday, November 28, 2009

Expat Spouses Can Resume Their Careers Once Abroad

I stumbled upon this site and have re-posted this article as inspiration to myself and others. Of all the expat portals out there, this is my new favourite. Meaningful, grounded sister love to enlighten, entertain and soothe with the appointed salve.

Expat Spouses Can Resume Their Careers Once Abroad

By Mary Kissel
Sandy Johnson was an unlikely expatriate when she moved to Singapore with her husband in the 1980s. With little prior experience abroad -- save an occasional trip to Mexico and a whirlwind tour of Europe as a teenager -- the Texas City, Texas, native found herself in a foreign country without a work permit or social network. What's more, her husband's oil-field services company, like many others, didn't provide expatriate spouses with job-hunting assistance.

Moving abroad can be tough on expatriate employees, but often it's just as hard -- if not harder -- on accompanying spouses or partners, who may have given up their careers to go overseas.

Undeterred, Ms. Johnson sought out volunteer opportunities. Soon, she was managing Singapore's American Women's Association, a not-for-profit with more than 1,000 members. Through her new professional connections, she landed a job as a marketing manager with International SOS, a Singapore and London-based medical and emergency assistance company, and embarked on a 20-year career with the organization. "The opportunity presented itself to me because I had done the networking," says Ms. Johnson, now a senior executive with International SOS in Philadelphia.

Unlike couples moving within the U.S., "trailing" expatriate spouses may not be able to secure necessary permits to work in their new country or know how to develop a social network to create such opportunities. What's more, an expat spouse's unhappiness can impinge upon his or her partner's professional success.

Unraveling Assignments

Statistics tell a disheartening story about trailing expat spouses. In a recent study co-authored by Willamette University and Cendant Mobility, almost 60% of the 548 surveyed "globally mobile" employees complained that lack of career opportunities for spouses and partners diminished their overall quality of life. And many relocation consultants say anecdotally that about half of all failed assignments are due to family problems.

Companies have been slow to address this issue. Less than half of nearly 150 multinational companies' human-resources departments profiled in Cendant's 2004 Policy and Practices study "typically" provide spousal assistance. Such assistance may range from a lump-sum payment to help with job hunting to work permits or career counseling, although few companies offer all these benefits.

"What's ironic is that [spousal assistance] is typically offered to high-level executives, but very often, the people who most need the spouse assistance aren't the high-level executives -- it's the low-level employees who will more frequently have dual-career families," says Lisa Johnson, Cendant's director of consulting services. Adds Rick Schwartz, president and chief executive officer of GMAC Relocation Services: "This is a really tough issue. We don't see clients doing a lot of real substantive work in this area, not because they don't want to, but because it's so complicated."

Involve Your Partner

With companies providing so little help, prospective expatriates should first ensure that their spouses understand what moving abroad means for their careers and lifestyle, says Susan Ginsberg, head of global business development for Ricklin-Echikson Associates (REA), a Milburn, N.J.-based firm that specializes in career assistance for expatriate partners and spouses. Don't surprise your spouse and say, "By the way, we're going to Japan," Ms. Ginsberg says wryly. "Request and require that the accompanying partner is included in the decision-making process."

Before you leave, devise a plan for how you'll introduce your potentially unemployed partner to new work colleagues or friends abroad. Partners used to working may feel uncomfortable to be introduced now as a "housewife" or "house husband."

Start Small, Think Big

For trailing spouses who want to remain employed, finding a job abroad may be challenging, but it isn't impossible. Some companies provide job-search assistance to partners or outsource this task to firms such as REA. Their assistance may include a range of services -- offering counseling on how to secure a work permit or get involved in the community, information on upcoming business conferences, or lists of classes to augment job skills.

But even if you're totally on your own, experienced expats say networking and imagination are the keys to success. "Be willing to take a nonpaying, skill-base-stretching opportunity, and one thing leads to another," says Ms. Johnson.

When Charlene "Cha Cha" Williams moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1996 with her husband, James, she found it difficult to get a work permit. Rather than wrestle with government bureaucracy, Ms. Williams took language classes, volunteered at the local zoo and joined the local women's association. On a group outing to a mountain resort north of Jakarta, she spotted an unusual looking basket in a hotel gift shop. Curious, she bought it, and at home with the help of the family's gardener, "dismantled it and re-mantled it and started producing them."

Soon, Ms. Williams was leading a small not-for-profit that produced more than 1,000 baskets a year, selling them to expatriates, and even exporting a few to Australia. The venture tripled her local Indonesian workers' incomes. Ms. Williams went on to found a spa in Jakarta with her sister (also an expat), who helped her get a work permit. "I think you can make whatever you want to out your expatriate life," Ms. Williams says.

Where to Go for Help

If you're going abroad, always first explore benefits offered by your partner's company. If no assistance is provided, consider taking these steps to facilitate finding a job, meaningful work or study abroad:

A Few Tips:

If you're going abroad, always first explore benefits offered by your partner's company. If no assistance is provided, consider taking these steps to facilitate finding a job, meaningful work or study abroad:

Before you leave, research the location. Find out if it's possible to get a work permit. If so, ask your partner's company if it can help you arrange the paperwork.

Check out such Web sites as or, which have chat rooms or billboards with job listings.

Contact the local U.S. [seemingly veered towards US citizen but insert you own here or another that may have diplomatic ties with your country] embassy immediately upon arrival. Embassy staff often can help expats integrate into the local community.

Once you're there, get involved in local organizations, community groups, faith-based communities, or schools. Don't be fooled by names -- the British Women's Association, for example, often accepts non-British members.


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