Is a job overseas the right move for your career?

Whether you have been offered a job overseas or been bitten by the travel bug, there are myriad variables to consider before accepting a foreign posting. Start with this checklist.

In Uzbekistan in the late 1990s, food was scarce. “If you saw a queue, you joined it,” says Dr Frances Miley FCPA, a visiting professor at the President’s Executive Banking Institute in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.

“We were in Uzbekistan after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the Western media was writing about what a wonderful thing it was. However, we did not meet a single person in Uzbekistan who was happy about it. Suddenly their Russian roubles were worthless and their new currency was the Uzbek cym.”

During their stay her husband, accounting professional Andrew Read CPA, who was advising the government on financial reform, was in the vicinity of a terrorist attack.

“A car bomb went off near his office on the 17th floor of the Ministry of Finance,” Miley says. He came out unscathed but “politics is complicated in that part of the world”, she adds. “You can’t live life in fear or worrying about what might happen.”

“We know, for example, that more than 50 per cent of repatriates leave their firm within two years or returning from assignment.” Miriam Moeller, University of Queensland

Miley has taught in universities in Thailand and Uzbekistan and undertaken consulting contracts in accounting and finance for clients including Agricultural Bank of China and the New Zealand Defence Force. She is currently an associate professor at the University of Sussex, in the UK, where she and Read are building the university as a centre of historical accounting research.

“My first posting was to Bangkok to work at Thammasat University,” Miley says. “It was the early 1990s and Bangkok was very different then. It was incredibly exciting to go overseas.

“We went from the suburbs of Canberra to a large serviced apartment overlooking the Chao Phraya River, travelling on the boats on the khlongs (canals) to get around the city and learning much more from the locals since we were in a Thai area – not an expat enclave – than we managed to teach our students.”

Global careerists and foreign executives

The US remains the top destination for international assignments, followed by China, then the UK, according to a 2014 study of 163 global companies by BGRS (formerly Brookfield Global Relocation Services).

According to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, more than one million Australians are living and working overseas at any given time.

Expatriation to a parent multinational corporation was once the main posting strategy identified in a 2013 research paper, Managing Expatriates: A Return on Investment Approach. However, other types of foreign workers – global careerists and foreign executives in local organisations, for example – are likely to dominate global staffing strategies in coming decades, it says.

Miley, who describes herself as a self-initiated expatriate, says: “I would classify those who go overseas differently. There are those looking for something – adventure, to ‘find’ themselves, or get out of a rut – and those who go because it is part of the job.”

It was global experience that William Young CPA, executive director – head of Australia at COS Capital in Melbourne, a China-headquartered real estate investment, funds and asset management firm, sought when he left Australia in 2004 at age 28.

“I owned my own Melbourne accounting practice, where 40 per cent of my clients were Japanese and another 40 per cent were Chinese, as I speak both Cantonese and Japanese,” Young says. “Even though I spoke the language, I wanted to understand the culture.

“I saw a growing trend of overseas investment into Australia and felt that some overseas experience and networks would benefit me in the future.”

Young sold his practice and travelled and interviewed widely in Asia. He accepted a job with Deloitte Vietnam, before joining tax and advisory firm Grant Thornton in Japan in 2006 as a tax manager, and then real estate investment firm MGPA as a finance manager.

“Japan was a great experience culturally and professionally, though not without its challenges,” he says.

As a foreign executive working within local teams, Young says he faced an attitude of “who is this person and why have they come here?”

“When my staff said yes, I heard ‘yes it will be done’ whereas often it was simply ‘yes I have heard that’. I ended up having to do everything once myself to show it could be done with more efficient results.”

“My research interests have also changed. I now do research with colleagues in Italy, France, the UK, Japan, Australia, the US and Canada.” Dr Frances Miley FCPA

Overcoming emotional and financial obstacles

In other ways, global expatriation was easy, Young says.

“I was single and getting a higher base pay, as well as paying lower income taxes in Hong Kong and Singapore. However, friends with children found it more difficult if they were treated as locally hired expats [as was Young]. Education in Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan is expensive for expats, as children may not be able to attend public schools, and many would also spend A$40,000 to A$50,000 a year on travelling to see relatives and friends.” Young also paid for trips home and his accommodation.

Schooling and partner career concerns continue to be at the top of the list of expat issues cited as very critical by global companies, according to BGRS.

Read and Miley home-schooled their son and daughter, “but we did have the cost of paying a fee to private schools to reserve places for our son and daughter when we returned”.

Miley admits: “When we first arrived in Bangkok, we worried we had made a huge mistake. Then we started to get to know some of the locals and that changed everything. We made friends and our children met local children, picked up other languages, took different foods, cultures and ideas in their stride and learned things they would not learn at school.”

While they were away, their children would also write to their former schoolmates in Australia and receive letters from their class. “Keeping that connection was important because when they returned, they did not feel like they had to make friends all over again,” Miley says.

Repatriation remains an underestimated challenge for those who work overseas, says Dr Miriam Moeller, senior lecturer in international business at the University of Queensland Business School.

“We know, for example, that more than 50 per cent of repatriates leave their firm within two years of returning from an assignment,” Moeller says.

“Many firms totally overlook the fact that people need help settling back in. Challenges are organisational, personal and cultural, and family and friends have often moved on.”

Moeller, herself a third-generation expatriate, says companies who send employees overseas need to seriously consider the repatriating phase even before assignees leave.

Young thought he would be away two years when he left in 2004 but it turned out to be much longer. He returned home in 2014 to be near his ageing parents and says reconnecting with siblings and nephews and nieces was initially the main challenge.

The value of international experience

In today’s globalised world, obtaining experience of different working cultures is an important way for professionals to differentiate themselves, believes Andrew Morris, a director at recruitment firm Robert Half Australia.

“As technology continues to make it easier for businesses to work across international boundaries, being able to demonstrate success internationally is a highly sought after credential,” he says.

Young says his overseas experience – which also included roles as senior project manager at Reed Midem in Hong Kong and regional sales director, Asia, then investment manager at Lendlease Singapore – didn’t necessarily make him more desirable to Australian-run companies. However, it did put him in the sightline of multinationals.

“I was hired for my current job because of an ex-boss from Japan.”

In 2012, he was also headhunted for Lendlease after meeting the then Asia CEO at an event in Malaysia.

If financial rewards or career advancement are your top priority, a foreign posting may not be the best option, Miley says, adding that academic salaries in the UK are lower than in Australia.

“I can tell you a lot about accounting systems in many countries, but most employers will not really care about that. However, the transferable skills you have gained are something any accounting employer will be interested in. You have international experience, you have dealt with a broader cross-section of people [and] you bring resilience.

“My research interests have also changed. I now do research with colleagues in Italy, France, the UK, Japan, Australia, the US, Canada and New Zealand. I have also become a better teacher.”

Says Morris: “Being able to put management skills and business acumen into practice in a different country helps you gain a broad understanding of the cultural and geographical influences that impact business operations. Will working overseas benefit your career for the long-term, enough to have a long-lasting positive impact on your family? This goes beyond purely financial outcomes, but also cultural and personal goals.”

While side-stepping to a foreign post may not bring great professional rewards, the eyeopening cultural experience can prove far more valuable to your personal development, he adds.

Or, as Miley says: “Every posting has turned out better than expected and it has always been because of the friends we have made and how much we have learnt about other people, other places – and about ourselves.”

Before you go overseas, check…

  • Medical coverage.
  • School fees.
  • Moving costs. “If you’re relocating for your company, they usually foot the bill,” Andrew Morris says. The company may also contribute to travel and accommodation costs.
  • Language barriers.
  • Visa and work permits.
  • Salaries, and accommodation costs. Says William Young: “I certainly found rent more expensive in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore.”
  • The tax implications of going overseas, including the implications for retaining your family home in your country of origin.
  • The possibility of terrorism-related incidents/stress.
  • Other challenges such as security issues, poorer quality of life and very different laws and customs, including significantly harsher penalties for breaking some laws.

Once you arrive…

  • Join a gym, do a short course, or anything to make friends.
  • Use your CPA Australia connections. Says Young: “The CPA designation was certainly helpful in getting my first two jobs overseas. Furthermore, I used CPA Australia members and groups for support, making friends and developing business connections.”
  • Don’t try to replicate home. “Learn to appreciate the local cuisine and do not expect dealing with government departments or real estate agents – or anything – to be like home,” Miley says.
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