How to manage your career as an expat?

Features
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Published on 2022-08-29 at 10:00 by Asaël Häzaq
Canada, the United States, Australia, Switzerland, Finland, Japan, France, etc. Since last year, countries have started recruiting foreign talent again following the crisis. So if you're looking for new work opportunities abroad, here's how to build your career and grow as an expat.

Perks of building a career abroad

Professional benefits

The recruitment of foreigners had slowed down significantly at the height of the pandemic, but things are accelerating in many countries facing a labor shortage. In Japan, the labor shortage started in the 1990s. Exacerbated by Covid-19, the labor shortages led to social and economic emergencies. According to the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Development Bank of Japan, the country will need 4.2 million foreign workers by 2030. Currently, they are only 1.7 million—good news for prospective expats who'd like to pursue a career in Japan.

Professional mobility is a real accelerator for people's careers. International work experience adds a lot of value to a CV and indicates a sense of independence, adaptive skills, learning skills, and integration skills… So many vital qualities for a thriving career abroad. Expats know how to work in teams, adapt themselves to constraints and question themselves. They are independent and proactive, quick to react and motivated. Expats also have a broader and more original perspective. Working abroad has given them exposure to an international network. This network further allows them to boost their career, get a promotion, and to evolve professionally (change career paths, launch their own business, etc.)

Personal benefits

On a personal level, having an international career boosts self-esteem and self-confidence. It helps you become more independent and better equipped to face challenges. You will improve both your hard skills and soft skills. You will learn to communicate more seamlessly. Working abroad forces you to learn the country's language and improve your English. In the end, you strengthen your foreign language skills, which is an asset in your professional and everyday life. Working abroad makes you gain maturity. Being outside your comfort zone, you are forced to reach out to others, learn differently, to adapt to everyday life the country. So many skills and abilities will definitely enhance your CV. A positive cycle, in a nutshell, makes expat profiles very appealing to recruiters.

What are the steps to building a career abroad?

Even during this period of rampant inflation, wages should not be the only benchmark for deciding whether to relocate to a certain country or not. Many other factors are as essential to consider as salary.

Finding a first job abroad

Is the country facing a skills or labor shortage in the sector you're looking to work in? (If the sector is saturated, you'll struggle even more than locals to get hired). What is its socio-political situation? Is it a country with a long history of immigration, like Canada, France, or the United States? What do its laws say about immigration and welcoming foreigners? Since Covid, for instance, new Singaporean laws are favoring locals over foreigners regarding hiring. In Hong Kong, the hopes of expats are being dampened by the increasingly suffocating stronghold of China on the city. Taiwan is also seeing the shadow of Xi Jingping loom closer. In Gulf countries, Omanization and Saudization are taking even more radical steps than Singaporean laws.

Objective data concerning your expat country should be evaluated side-by-side with the information specific to each expat: living environment, work-life balance, urbanization, noise levels, transport, accessibility, etc.

Wages

Of course, salaries need to be considered. According to a study by William Russel, an international health insurance specialist, Switzerland is the best country for working abroad. Swiss wages are 2 to 3 times higher than those in other OECD countries. For instance, a teacher in Switzerland earns thrice as much as they would make doing the same job in France (about 76,000 euros per year in Switzerland and 23,000 euros per year in France). The salary is twice as high for engineers. Engineers are also better paid in the United States than in France. The same goes for researchers. Police officers should rather head to the Land of the Rising Sun. In Japan, they can earn about 40,000 euros per year, compared to 84,000 euros in Switzerland and 5800 euros in Mexico. Software developers should rather head to the United States, where they can make 95,000 euros annually compared to 42,000 euros in France or 5600 euros in Turkey.

According to the same study, Poland, Hungary, Turkey and Costa Rica are among the most affordable OECD countries. Their salaries are quite low, but so is the cost of living. So expats coming from wealthier countries, like Switzerland, will likely enjoy a higher income. In Switzerland, salaries are high, but the cost of living is high too.

Assessing your tax burden

Studies about expat wages don't take into consideration the impact of taxation. And yet, tax plays a vital role in calculating how much cash in hand an expat is left with. Denmark, France and Belgium are the countries with the highest taxes. Danish taxes can levy up to 60% of an expat's income. In fact, taxes make up 45.9% of the GDP there. In France, it's 45.3% of the GDP, and in Belgium, it's 44.13%. The tax burden is around 34.4% in Canada, 31.4% in Japan and 25.5% in the United States. In Switzerland, it's a mere 8%.

Career progression abroad 

To kickstart a career abroad, you must play both sides. On one hand, you need to assess the country you're moving to in terms of job sectors under stress, salary benchmarks, taxes, cost of living, political system, political stability, unemployment rates, policies concerning the admission of foreigners, etc. On the other hand, you also need to assess yourself as a prospective expat in terms of technical and social skills, academic level, work experience, foreign language skills, learning ability, etc.

To evolve professionally, you must first be ready to start from scratch. Some foreigners still arrive in a new country thinking it's conquered territory. Even in a senior role, you should be willing to ask for help, discover and assimilate yourself to a new corporate culture, and accept being less efficient or productive in the first few months of your expat life. Just like foreigners observe locals, the locals also observe them back. Making a good first impression and keeping an open-minded and humble attitude will help you evolve in your career.

Having a thriving career abroad could take as much time as it formerly did back in your home country. Expat first have to truly learn their company's work culture and then then the norms of their expat country. It's also essential to speak the country's language. English is not enough. It's also essential to get trained in using the company's equipment and to understand how to evolve. Should you ask for a meeting with your manager? Are there regular evaluations to decide who should get promoted? Are bonuses acquired through seniority or merit? Each country has its own corporate culture, and it's important to assimilate this culture to avoid committing blunders.

Expats and immigrants

The term “expat” is often used to define people who go live abroad. But legally, an expat is a person who relocates abroad under an expatriation contract. They negotiate a contract with their employer, which specifies the conditions of their period of activity abroad. Generally, this period lasts only a few years, after which the worker should return to their company back home. During their time as an expat, they depend on the local contract made in the expat country. The expatriation contract is different from a secondment contract, which allows a foreigner to undertake a mission abroad while remaining under the protection of their company.

While less popular, the term “immigrant” is still the one that fits the profile of the majority of expats. They are individuals who relocate abroad by themselves.

How to negotiate for a promotion as an expat?

Employees who are relocating under an expatriation contract negotiate their salary and allowances before moving. Indeed, the expatriation contract includes not only the salary but also everything else that's indispensable to living abroad. For example, it can include bonuses and allowances (like the cost of living allowance) that will guarantee a good income and lifestyle in the expat country.

Workers relocating without an expatriation contract need to negotiate their promotions the way a local would. They have, after all, been hired under a local contract. Understanding the corporate culture is hence crucial for knowing how to negotiate for a promotion. In the United States, for example, the Great Resignation (a big wave of resignations affecting the country since 2021) has given more negotiating power to employees. They are joining forces to negotiate higher salaries and no longer hesitate to resign to find a better job. Even if the movement has lost some momentum this year, it is still ongoing. Meanwhile, other countries are increasing the salaries for job vacancies that are hard to fill (waitpersons, drivers, etc.).

Tips for managing your career abroad 

Expat life isn't only about work. While managing your career abroad, you should also be curious and make an effort to learn about your expat country, such as the lifestyle, the culture, and the business culture. Everything will not be written down explicitly. Observe your colleagues and supervisors/managers to learn more about workplace relations. You'll then be in a better position to negotiate for future promotion or career move.

Speak your expat country's language. Far too often, we still hear that English is enough. But it's naive to believe that you'll always find an English speaker no matter where you go in the world. Learn the local language, even if your language of work is English. Learning the language also means sharing the country's culture. It indicates your motivation and desire to progress.

Continue to get training and learn constantly. Does your company abroad offer in-house training? How do your colleagues receive training? Seek their advice to know how to upskill and boost your career.

Live like a local by adopting the local lifestyle and consuming local products. Join a sports club or a cultural club. At first glance, these activities don't seem to have a lot to do with work, and yet. You should build a social life outside of work in your expat country just like you had one back home. This can have a significant impact on your career. You can also combine the practical and fun parts of your expat life by choosing popular activities in the professional networks you wish to join.

Be mentally prepared. Ask your relatives and friends for advice. You might as well sign up for expat coaching. Talk to people about your move abroad. Don't do everything alone. Keep your motivation high and progress at your own pace.