May 20, 2010 — -- Last week, I wrote about Americans who turned to overseas work as an alternative to the lousy U.S. job market. Researching that column made me wonder what the heck I was doing growing moss under my toes in the Pacific Northwest.
Don't get me wrong. I love working as a freelance writer, and I cherish my Seattle home, along with many other places I've visited and lived in North America. But I haven't traveled in eons, and the idea of upping and moving my life to Madrid or Moscow or Mumbai or Matsumoto had me more than a tad curious.
Sure, there's work as a tour guide, a ESL teacher or an au pair to be had by Americans living on foreign soil. But for those eager to trade in their T-shirts and backpacks, what about decent-paying gigs in the international business sector?
According to a survey conducted in late 2009 by Cartus Corporation, a company that specializes in employee relocation assistance, white collar jobs abroad are on the rise. A majority of the 200 North and South American, European, Middle Eastern, African and Asian human resources professionals polled by Cartus said they expect to see an increase in international assignments this year.
So how do you go from a bored, disgruntled or underemployed American worker to a hotshot global candidate who catches the eye of a multinational firm looking to fill a full-time position in another country? To find out, I spoke with several international recruiters, U.S. expats working abroad and career advisors who specialize in overseas work.
Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to move to Italy or Indonesia to gain global work experience. Career experts agree that working for an international company right here in the United States can be a great start.
If your employer has offices abroad, seek opportunities to work on international accounts or projects, take overseas business trips or have a hand in overseas operations. Then, after adding a few international notches to your employment belt, get to know the recruiter responsible for overseas assignments at your company.
"These positions are plum, so if your goal is to work overseas, start aiming yourself in that direction as soon as possible. You don't want to wait 10 years to get that job," said author and career counselor Robin Ryan, whose books include the bestseller, "60 Seconds & You're Hired!"
Not only do U.S. multinationals often make international assignments from within, many of them will pay for your move, and some still offer expat benefits like apartment and automobile stipends.
As an added bonus, "The company transferring you will deal with most of the legal paperwork and visa issues," said Chantal Panozzo, a magazine writer from Chicago who moved to Baden, Switzerland in 2006. "Sometimes they'll even pay for someone to do your taxes."
Cultivate a Global Consciousness
While impressive to both U.S. and overseas employers, it's not enough to have a resume sprinkled with international travel, business projects or volunteer stints.
"In today's day and age, having a global worldview is necessary," said Avi Rubel, North American director of Masa Israel Journey, an organization that matches recent college grads with internships in Israel. "People are looking for cross-cultural awareness more than anything."
In other words, YOU need to get hip to the business environment, political climate, social customs and cultural nuances of the region you're hoping to live and work in.
"It is far more likely that a French bank will transfer you to its Paris branch if you demonstrate communication skills in French and a cultural understanding of the work environment, with the potential taboos," said Gregory Hubbs, editor-in-chief of Transitions Abroad, a clearinghouse for international job information and opportunities.
One of the quickest ways to blow an interview for an international gig is to come off as overly American-centric, warned Steve Watson, managing director of the Dallas office of Stanton Chase International, a global executive search firm.
"Whenever I'm talking to an executive and they start talking about July in the summertime, I start to question, 'Are you a global thinker?'" Watson said.
Of course, experts say, true awareness of a nation's culture is best gained through an extended stay there.
"It's one thing to read news from all over the world," said Rubel. "It's another to actually plant yourself in a different culture and get that firsthand experience."
What if you're a hopeful U.S. expat with zero experience traveling, studying, working or volunteering abroad?
"Go out and get some," Rubel said.
Brush Up on Your Language Skills
Obviously, speaking the local language of the country you hope to call home can only help your cause. But in many cases, Watson said, being bilingual isn't necessary.
"With most multinational corporations, English is now the language used," he said.
What if you're practically fluent in the local tongue? Should you bother taking your language skills to the next level?
"If you are close to business-level proficiency in the local language of the country to which you want to relocate, spend a couple months polishing your skills before approaching the local job market so that you can interview confidently in that language," Laurie Lebrun, a Toyko-based consultant with Major, Lindsey & Africa, an international placement firm for legal professionals, said via e-mail.
Otherwise, Lebrun said, there's no need to hold up your job search for months and months until you're fluent, unless there aren't any opportunities in your field for those who only speak English.
That said, you should always be prepared to acquire a second language on the job.
"Your willingness to learn that language is very important, especially in lower-level jobs" said Watson. "If you're an individual contributor or a first-line or second-line manager, you're going to be expected to converse in the native language to a lot of the workers there."
If you want to step up your international job search, experts say planting yourself in your country of choice and networking your heart out is the way to go.
"If possible, buy a cheap plane ticket and dedicate a week or more to meeting with potential employers in person," Lebrun said. "It will be the best money you ever spent. Waiting for an employer to buy you a ticket can make the difference between you and another candidate getting the job."
Before your trip, Watson said, get in touch with international recruiters and any contacts you can find at the companies you covet to see if you can set up some interviews or informational meetings.
Besides helping wedge your foot in the overseas employment door, Watson said, paying a visit to the region you're considering making your new home "helps you solidify that you really can live in that culture. It's kind of a nice beta test."
That's what a New York City museum registrar I'll call "Anna" did.
"I visited London about 15 times before moving here," said Anna, who relocated to the UK in 2007. Not only did she cultivate a cadre of friends during those visits, she freelanced at several European art fairs for the art shipping company that now employs her full time.
Research the Logistics
No job search would be complete without a healthy amount of detective work. Use the Internet, your conversations with international contacts and your visits abroad to gather as many insider details as you can about the world you're hoping to enter. (Remember, they call it "culture shock" for a reason.)
"Find out what the lifestyle's going to be," said Margo Schlossberg, a marketing professional from Vienna, Va. who recently spent three years working in Jakarta.
"In Indonesia, you do have a wonderful lifestyle, but there are floods certain times of the year, the infrastructure is bad and there's a lot of government corruption."
Don't stop with politics, transportation and the weather though. U.S. expats say it's essential to also look into the nation's health care system, attitudes toward leisure time and the employment taxes you will be paying -- both abroad and to Uncle Sam.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have some airfares and exchange rates to look into.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michelle Goodman is a freelance writer and former cubicle dweller. Her books include "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire," and, "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube." Follow her at @anti9to5guide.