On a flight from Washington, D.C. to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I found myself seated next to a bright-eyed university student who was traveling there for a two-week volunteer trip. When I told him I’d be working in Ethiopia for the next several months as a project manager for an international media company, he was visibly taken aback. “Working?” he marveled quietly, like he was considering the word for the first time.
Like many Americans, he didn’t often hear African countries connected with real-world business experience. I was used to this response; people react similarly when they hear I’ve been on work assignments in places like Mongolia, Nigeria, and Paraguay.
Fortunately, awareness is now spreading that travel to emerging market countries is no longer limited to volunteer work or diplomacy. For savvy professionals with relevant experience and an appetite for challenge, there are plenty of opportunities to work full-time in finance, technology, marketing, and real estate in Africa, Central Asia, and Latin America.
Since 2008, I’ve traveled to more than 50 countries and worked in a professional capacity in at least a dozen. Now I help young people from all over the world take their careers abroad, translating vague notions that they’d like to live overseas into specific, meaningful roles that move them from Brooklyn to Beijing.
If you dream of having an international career, here are three key principles to accelerate your transition abroad.
1. Craft your skill set for the international market.
Many people I work with studied international relations, business, or a foreign language in college. While often academically interesting, these subjects can be professionally limiting. To secure a work visa in most countries, you have to prove you have a skill set no one else in that country has. Proficiency in a foreign language is an asset — sometimes a necessary one — but it won’t usually land you a job on its own.
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If you want to secure a position abroad, start by connecting directly with expatriates in the countries you are most interested in. They can help point you to good career sites. Stay on top of job postings, as well as economic and trend reports in these countries, which will help you figure out the concrete skills that are most valued by employers.
2. Get international experience early on.
I always say, “international experience begets international experience.” The earlier you can get international experience, the better. Going abroad for the first time often comes at a financial cost, whether it be quitting another job or taking an unpaid internship, but having those lines on your resume pays off in the long-run.
One common rookie mistake is to get hired at a large multinational with hopes of being relocated overseas. While this kind of move is possible, it’s usually not probable. Take the brand name position, but don’t count on getting an international placement unless you were explicitly hired for one. Focus on sharpening your skill set and leveraging that Fortune 500 experience to impress employers who will hire you directly for an international role.
3. Build a global network in your field.
Moving from Westchester to West Africa doesn’t happen by chance; it happens by connecting with real humans who work at real companies in that region. So use your Facebook stalking skills for good, and set up informational interviews with locals and expatriates in your field of interest. If you have the resources, consider taking a networking trip to put in face time at prospective organizations abroad.
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It’s important to develop a focus both geographically and professionally, and tailor your network accordingly. Saying you want to “work in Latin America” won’t lead to a job; knowing you want to “work on the finance side of agricultural development programs in Peru” (and having a corresponding professional background) puts you in the game.
The keywords to drive an international career transition are: synergy, focus, and real connection. Synergize your interests and talents with the international marketplace, focus exactly on where you want to be, and develop real relationships with real people in that field. And most of all, never be afraid to simply pack up and go.