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Expat Partner Careers

Having a paid job is not an economic necessity for some partners of expatriate employees: the salary and benefits earned by the working partner make dual incomes unnecessary.

Not having to work is, in a sense, a luxury, right?

Yes it is, except if you want to work. In this case, the international lifestyle can make it very difficult to find jobs and build up a career: the stability required to build up a network and climb your way up a ladder can seem like a luxury in itself.In Lagos, for instance, there are issues like visa regulations, a tight labour market, a very different social and cultural environment that make finding a job difficult. A non-working partner will easily spend the first six months establishing routines and the basic necessities of family life before he or she has a chance to even think of looking around for work.

It seems to me that being an expat partner is a career in itself. By moving to live in different countries we gain experience and skills, and hone the positive and proactive attitudes that make us capable of dealing with change, with functioning in unknown environments, of learning new ways of doing things…

The very fact that we face – and overcome – challenges as we resettle abroad sharpens a skill that is much in demand today: change management. The knowledge, skills and attitudes required to effectively deal with change is a skill set that is only perfected through experience: it cannot be learned in a classroom.

But like with any career, the path we take should lead us somewhere at the end of the line. The question is where?

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I have often heard and read expat partners say that they need to re-invent themselves at each posting. Yes, every single move requires a supreme effort of adjustment to local conditions.

But I wonder if there not another way of looking at global mobility that makes it possible for people to gain control of the process rather than waiting until we arrive and then reacting to the conditions in each location?

If you were thinking about this in terms of a non-mobile career, would you take on a job and just go with the flow – wherever that leads you – or would you see this job as a step in a longer-term career plan?

In other words, I think it is useful to look at each posting as one step, one set of experiences and potential for learning and growth, along a longer-term life path.

Identifying your longer-term goals is, in itself a difficult process. What is it that you personally want to get out of the whole ride? What do you want to have achieved or be or know or have experienced or be able to do when you retire from the life of the international nomad? How will you judge your own success or failure?

Only you can determine the answer to those questions. It can be as noble as raising your children to be well-balanced, happy people. Or it can be to become the CEO of a company – all goals are valid as long as they are yours. But once you have a general direction in mind, you can start looking at your current and future postings in light of how each will contribute to your goals.

In the 21st century it is generally accepted that careers are no longer the unilinear paths they used to be. It is the exception for an employee to spend their entire working life climbing the ladder of one single company or organisation. In other words, it can be argued (to a potential employer, for instance) that the variety of experiences an expatriate partner has in their life is not unusual; it is, in fact, a trend-setting life choice.

Furthermore, all sorts of experiences can be a legitimate means of reaching the end point. If, for example, someone is in a place where they cannot find paid employment, volunteering should not be seen as a pause in their career but a means of gaining or practicing useful skills that contribute to one’s CV. No one needs to know (or should care) if you are paid or not.

I’m not saying it is easy. Visa issues, quotas, the availability of types of work, the openness of locals to short-term visitors… the list of barriers to finding satisfying, fulfilling activities is long. But I think that looking at expatriation as a part of our professional experiences helps us focus on:
• The skills we have and those we want to gain or improve;
• The steps we need or want to take on the way to achieving our career goals;
• The resources we need in order to achieve our goals.

Rather than looking for jobs in the traditional sense, we can determine how to gain skills or experiences that lead us to where we want to go.

On November 14, I will run a seminar for expat partners in Lagos. I hope to expand our understand of what a globally mobile career can be in the 21st century and allow individuals to explore their own ‘career’ goals and how they can be enabled while here in Lagos.

Stay tuned for a further blog when I relate what I learned from the participants on my own globally mobile journey.

Diane Lemieux was born in Quebec, Canada and began travelling at the age of three. She has lived in ten countries on five continents and speaks English, French, Dutch and Portuguese. She has a BA in communications, an MA in development studies, a post-MA in International Relations and a journalism diploma. She has ten years experience in international development and fifteen years as a freelance author and journalist. She is the author of four books including the award winning The Mobile Life: a new approach to moving anywhere and Culture Smart! Nigeria.

See her blog: diane-lemieux.com/mobilelife and her active Facebook page on mobility

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