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Think Globally Work Globally

International jobs can be your ticket to personal fulfillment and career success

By Jennifer Bobrow Burns

Are you enticed by the notion of traveling to exotic, faraway locales? Many students are drawn to the idea of traveling abroad, living overseas, and sampling a different culture upon graduation. International jobs can provide all of these exciting challenges and more, offering the experience of a lifetime. In addition to the enriching personal growth you'll face by living and working in a different part of the world, the skills you'll gain will make you immeasurably marketable in today's global economy. However, international jobs are not always easy to come by.

Drawing Your Map

If you've been bitten by the travel bug, you have some big decisions ahead of you. First, you must develop a plan. Ask yourself about your work abroad goals. Do you want to work overseas for a year or two, or is this a more permanent lifestyle choice? Remember that you can change your mind at any time, but understanding your objectives at the beginning will help guide your research and assist you in finding opportunities that best fit your needs.

Also, think about where, ideally, you want to go. List the countries and regions you most want to explore.

Think of places you have ties to, such as friends, family, citizenship, language skills or prior experience. These places may be likely locations for employment.

Additionally, determine how you feel about possible jobs. Is it crucial that you find work in the engineering/technical field? Large multinational companies, foreign companies, American businesses and service programs may all provide technical positions, but in varying capacities.

As you explore the variety of international options open to you, many of your questions will be answered, but many new questions will unfold as well. More research is the answer to untangled this sometimes complicated career choice and personal pursuit. Check out the "Additional Resources" sidebar to the left for great Web sites and books to investigate once you've finished reading this article. Before long you'll know everything you need to know about how to go global.

Pack Your Bags

Engineers and computer scientists have several options when it comes to international jobs. According to Jeff Beavers, assistant dean and director of Engineering Career Services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's College of Engineering, there are a number of companies with global offices or operations looking to recruit engineers for internship and full-time positions abroad. "These companies range from consulting firms to manufacturing companies," says Beavers. "The only limitation for many of these positions is a student's ability to gain work authorization in the specific country in which they will be employed." Beavers goes on to say that a number of companies have developed programs and processes to assist students in overcoming this challenge, and they have been successful in recruiting talent for positions abroad.

One option for recent graduates is to go through American companies with international offices. Sometimes new hires are sent abroad right away, but more frequently they must first gain domestic experience before they can board a plane. For those who want some international exposure without fully committing to an overseas career, however, this can be an excellent fit. Keep in mind, though, that the length of time abroad and the location vary greatly and are not guaranteed.

When Jed Finn was the director of Technical Services for EMeta, a software company in New York, he found himself spending several consecutive weeks in London over a period of a few months. Finn, who graduated with an economics major and computer science minor from McGill University in Montreal in 2000, welcomed the opportunity to work with international clients. "Because the company was first founded in London, a prior relationship existed with clients there," says Finn. For him, being able to develop and cultivate these relationships with people from a different culture without fully uprooting his life and moving to London fit his goals perfectly.

Large companies in the fields of manufacturing finance, consulting and information technology may have clients, offices and/or projects abroad. As you explore different organizations, you can research these possibilities.

Service-Based Work for Techies

As an alternative to the corporate world, volunteer and service-based programs are an excellent way to satisfy wanderlust while building your resume. These short-term programs won't offer you a career game plan for the next ten years, but they will provide enriching life and professional opportunities that will impress future employers around the globe. While there are many great programs, some specifically recruit engineers. Some of these programs are highlighted below.


The Peace Corps
Officially established in 1961 after John F. Kennedy asked students to consider how they could serve their country, the Peace Corps (www.peacecorps.gov), sends volunteers to work in developing countries worldwide, promoting peace and assisting communities. More than half of the six volunteer areas are ideal matches for those with diverse engineering and/or technical backgrounds, including information technology, environment, agriculture and business development. In addition to the unparalleled inspiration you will get from overcoming obstacles and helping others, there are plenty of tangible benefits derived from this 27-month program as well. You will receive a living allowance while abroad, potential loan deferment later on, and a lifelong professional network of alumni. Furthermore, the transferable skills gained from specific tasks such as developing a forestry conservation plan or building local databases will look great on your resume and can be applied in many professional settings.

Engineers Without Borders
According to their Web site, Engineers Without Borders (EWB-USA) is a nonprofit humanitarian organization established to partner with developing communities worldwide in order to improve their quality of life. They work to implement environmentally and economically sustainable engineering projects and train internationally responsible engineering professionals. Engineering students or professional engineers can join or start a student or professional EWB-USA chapter and get started on short-term projects around the world. The option is also available to volunteer as a technical consultant or professional reviewer without going abroad. This program, geared specifically to engineers, offers another great way to work internationally, make a contribution to society and gain valuable work experience.


Geekcorps
A division of the International Executive Service Corps, which seeks to promote private enterprise development throughout the world, Geekcorps sends technology volunteers to teach communities in developing nations how to solve issues through technology. Engineers and computer scientists with three to five years of professional experience can take on short-term projects abroad helping countries to use information technology to meet their needs. The average Geekcorps assignment lasts three to four months and volunteers are matched with projects that make use of their strengths. Because of the short nature of these projects, employed engineers and computer scientists may be able to take a leave of absence from their domestic jobs to go abroad and help others.


Teaching abroad
While not the typical path thought of for engineers and computer scientists, teaching abroad can be a good short-term option if you are looking to get a taste of international culture before beginning your technical career. Programs are available worldwide, where fluency in English is one of the only requirements. The school or program handles work authorization, and speaking the local language is rarely necessary, since the idea is that you will be teaching English. The presentation and communication skills you develop through teaching will help you stand out from other technical grads when you return. See www.teachabroad.com, www.eslcafe.com and www.goabroad.com to learn more.

Working for the U.S. government
Another option for U.S. citizens is to go abroad by working for the United States Department of State. Foreign Service Officers, Foreign Service Specialists and Civil Service Employees work in Washington, D.C. and around the world developing foreign policy and assisting U.S. citizens. There are a variety of specializations in each of these areas that can be right for engineers and computer scientists. Additionally, the State Department runs internship, fellowship and student employment programs where you can try out government work. The Web site www.state.gov/m/dghr/hr offers a wealth of information about careers and programs.

Receiving Work Authorization

While some international companies do have U.S. offices and recruit college students and recent graduates for work at their overseas headquarters, other applicants find that the best way to get hired by these organizations is to look for work once you are already abroad. Oftentimes U.S. citizens will look for work while they are abroad for travel or study purposes. However, working for an international company may be tricky for U.S. citizens, since work authorization can pose a problem.

If you want to work abroad in a country where you are not a citizen, you must receive work authorization from their government, which usually involves a special type of visa called a work permit. Depending on the country in which you want to work, begin by checking with their consulate or embassy to find out about their specific work permit requirements.

Generally, an individual cannot get permission to work without the guarantee of a specific job. Then, the employer can seek the work permit on your behalf. For short-term internships or jobs, there are a number of organizations that can help you with this process. They include BUNAC (www.bunac.org) and the Association for International Professional Training (www.aipt.org).

Career Centers Can Help

If you are thinking about working abroad, the earlier you get international exposure, the better. As a student or recent graduate, you can take advantage of numerous structured programs on and off your college campus. For example, the University of Illinois College of Engineering has an International Programs Office that offers summer, semester and academic year programs in nearly 20 countries.

Jeff Beavers says that engineering students on any campus can gain practical work experience worldwide through such agencies as the International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience (www.iaeste.org), Council on International Education Exchange (www.ciee.org), the American Scandinavian Foundation (www.amscan.org) and CDS International (www.cdsintl.org).

In addition to researching programs through these organizations and others, Beavers also encourages students to visit their university's career centers for additional assistance and support. "Most career centers have partnerships with employers who recruit and hire students for international employment opportunities," he states. "Additionally, career centers can help identify opportunities to meet and network with alumni and recruiters from these companies." Beavers goes on to mention career fairs throughout the U.S. that focus specifically on international employment. See the Career Conferences of America Web site at www.career conferences.com and DISCO International at www.discointer.com for more information.

What Employers Want

If you are interested in working abroad, what do you need in order to be considered a competitive job candidate? "Language skills and past study abroad or international work experiences provide the greatest competitive advantage to engineers seeking to work abroad," says Beavers. Employers look for individuals who have proven their interest and commitment to global issues, with participation in internship and other programs demonstrating an understanding and appreciation for diverse cultures.

Furthermore, skills that engineers and computer scientists gain through their coursework and academic activities are also prized. "Experience managing complex projects while working with diverse and multidisciplinary teams is valuable," advises Beavers. "Strong written and verbal communication skills and proven leadership skills, including the ability to lead and influence others, are also important in the global marketplace."

International Resumes and CVs

It's important that your job-related documents, like curriculum vitae and resumes, conform to the local style. While here in the U.S. it is illegal for employers to ask personal information such as age or marital status, these are standard resume features in some countries. Furthermore, some employers expect to see a photograph of prospective candidates as well.

Research will help ensure you include the necessary features. Web sites such as www.jobera.com, www.euro graduate.com, and the book Best Resumes and CVs For International Jobs: Your Passport to the Global Job Market by Ronald L. Krannich and Wendy S. Enelow offer more information. On both a traditional American resume and an international CV, engineers and computer scientists should always highlight their technical skills.

Marketable Skills for the Global Age

Along with the skills you should bring to the table, the talents you can gain from international experience are tremendous. In this day and age, as technology brings the world closer than ever and business is frequently conducted on a worldwide scale, those candidates who have proven that they can think globally are hot commodities. Following are just some of the strengths that you can develop from working abroad.

Cultural sensitivity
Throughout the world, people conduct business differently. "It is important to learn that there are many ways to do [business]," explains Margaret Malewski, the author of GenXpat: The Young Professional's Guide to Making a Successful Life Abroad. While Americans tend to be more direct with outlining deadlines and responsibilities, not all cultures work that way.

Becoming culturally sensitive involves understanding cultural differences in communication styles. "Just because staff members are quiet, doesn't mean they don't have a lot to offer," Malewski cautions. Recognizing these differences and offering people the support they need will help you to be a better leader and team player throughout your career.

Relationship building and communication
As mentioned above, building relationships is one of the top ways to work effectively in the international marketplace. "Working abroad can show you that having dinner together and developing relationships is just as effective [as formal meetings] in making things happen," Malewski says. Jed Finn agrees. Now, as a consultant for McKinsey and Company in New York, Finn finds that his experience in London has helped him greatly in his current work with clients. "Developing relationships with people from different cultures and working closely with people honed my communication skills," Finn says. And developing those skills has helped him excel at the relationship-building aspect of his consulting career.

Decision-making
Another important thing Jed Finn learned from his experience working in London was decision-making skills and independence. "Since I was the only person there from my firm, I had to make decisions on the fly without going back and checking with my boss," Finn remembers. He learned to be more confident and decisive, without the crutch of a fully staffed local office to back him up. Developing these abilities enables young professionals to take on more leadership early on and to be eligible and capable for higher-level positions.

Understand the Risks

Margaret Malewski cautions students to think carefully before embarking on a long-term international career path. "When you are between the ages of 22 and 30, you are focused on your career," she says. However, she explains that later on your priorities may change and you may want to settle down and have a family. Therefore you should consider both the short and long-term potential of your destination as you explore opportunities. "You must understand the personal and long-term consequences," says Malewski.

She adds, "going abroad is very valuable, even for a year or two. It makes it much easier to work with international partners and enrich your skill set. But, it is not for everyone. If you are very attached to your home, [a long-term international career] might not be for you. It's ok not to go if it doesn't suit you."

As technical experts, your skills are valued across the globe. Assessing yourself and your objectives will help you create a game plan that works for you. Creating computer databases in South America, working on a business team in Europe, or analyzing water quality in Africa can be yours for the taking, depending on your goals. Preparation, a demonstrated interest in international pursuits, and adventurous spirit will get you started. Whether you are looking for a short-term stint or a long-term career, the world awaits!

Jennifer Bobrow Burns is a career counselor and free-lance writer in Connecticut. She is the author of the forthcoming book Career Opportunities in the Nonprofit Sector, to be published by Facts on File, Inc. in 2006.

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