How to get an international job
Zero in on your chosen field, then seek out global employers. Beware of agencies that promise to get you a job for a fee.
(Fortune) -- Dear Annie: I've always loved to travel - my dad is British and my mom is Israeli, so I grew up traveling extensively in Europe and Africa. I also speak 3 languages. I'll be graduating from college in January and, since "global" is the big buzzword in business these days, I want to find some kind of international job. But where do I start? Should I go through a job-search agency? -Ari
Dear Ari: Your love of travel may serve you well in your job hunt -- or then again, it may not matter. Katharine Brooks, director of liberal arts career services at the University of Texas at Austin, has spent the past 20 years researching the international job market and advising hopefuls such as yourself. "It surprises lots of people to learn that about 80% of international jobs -- that is, jobs with American employers that require you to deal extensively with other countries -- are located in the U.S.," she notes.
Banks, import-export companies, manufacturers, insurance companies, and many other kinds of organizations, including government agencies and nonprofits, have positions that are not only located stateside, but -- with the communications technology available today -- require relatively little travel.
"The idea that overseas jobs with American companies are plentiful is a myth," says Brooks. "Most American companies hire locally, in whatever countries they operate in, for entry-level jobs and send only a few Americans abroad, mostly in management positions." One huge global company that recruits at U. of Texas, for instance, has more than 275,000 employees; only about 300 of them are Americans working overseas.
That's not to say that you should give up on finding an international career -- only that you need to approach it realistically. "First decide what you want to do. Then find a way to do it internationally," says Brooks.
There are a few pockets of opportunity in almost any business you can name: "In retailing, some buyers travel extensively in Europe and Asia. In advertising, you can specialize in crafting ad campaigns for overseas clients. In management consulting, there are jobs that require you to work on international projects. Once you have figured out what kind of work you're interested in, you can begin to get some experience. Then focus on finding ways to do it internationally."
Your best bet is to move to a city with lots of overseas connections, if you don't already live in one. New York City is number one in this regard, but Miami, Philadelphia, and Chicago offer plenty of opportunities in shipping, banking, consulting, and other global businesses, Brooks says. San Francisco and Los Angeles serve as major U.S. hubs for companies with dealings in Asia and the Pacific Rim.
Big cities also tend to have thriving immigrant communities, where -- depending on what you want to end up doing -- you might find a chance to get your foot in the door. Notes Brooks, "In sales and marketing, companies often need bilingual employees to reach consumers whose primary language is Spanish, Arabic, or Chinese."
In general, your fluency in three languages may not be as big a factor as you might think. "Language skills alone are not enough," Brooks says. "You need to bring strong work-related skills that enable you to do the job."
That said, do emphasize to potential employers that learning a foreign language thoroughly is really about developing an understanding for a whole unfamiliar culture. "What you want to convey is that learning these languages opened you up to fresh perspectives, so that you have an ability to look at things in a different way," says Brooks.
As for leveraging all that globe-trotting you've done, Brooks says, don't present your extensive overseas travel as just a series of vacations. "When students come back from a junior year abroad or a foreign internship, I always ask them, 'Okay, who has a disaster story?'," says Brooks. "And of course almost everyone does. They lost all their luggage, including their passport and visa, in a place where they didn't speak a word of the language, for example. Those are great stories to tell an employer! It's chance to show off your problem-solving skills and resourcefulness, and that you can adapt in an unfamiliar situation."
Brooks takes a dim view of placement agencies that charge you a fee in exchange for the promise of an overseas job. "Employers pay the fees at reputable employment agencies, so don't be fooled by ads in newspapers or online," she says.
If you can't resist trying one of these outfits, she adds, contact the Better Business Bureau and your state attorney general's office first to see if the agency has any black marks against it -- a bit of wise counsel that applies equally to fee-based employment agencies claiming to offer U.S. jobs, too.
Are you part of the virtual workforce? That is, do you work from home or from some other location (such as client offices and airplanes) at least 3 days a week? Or do you manage people who work remotely and are reachable only by phone or e-mail? If so, I'd like to know: What's the biggest difficulty you've encountered with working or managing at a distance? (And how have you solved it, if you have?) Please send comments to Anne_Fisher@fortunemail.com and include a phone number where you can be reached during business hours. Many thanks!