The two biggest obstacles between you and a year away will be arranging time off from your current job and finding a new, temporary job in another country. Many larger employers make provisions for long-term leaves of absence without pay, like the ones that the Wheelers arranged. You also might be able to convince your employer that taking a year off will make you a better employee upon your return, especially if you’re going to improve your foreign language skills or increase your knowledge of another marketplace while you’re gone. Then again the notion of a job for life is largely a thing of the past. You could simply swallow hard and quit, taking with you a promise to check back in a year when you return. I did.
Hachey, the Canadian guru on working overseas, suggests you begin your foreign job search by preparing a resumé that is substantially different from a domestic one. In particular, it should emphasize personality traits that are crucial to successful overseas workers ? such as coping skills, curiosity, sense of adventure and problem solving. It should also play up any experience you have working or living in different cultures. Send this to likely employers, which you can often find through the Internet, phone books or professional associations. (Hachey’s book includes several hundred pages of suggestions.) Better yet, consider spending your next vacation touring the area you would like to spend your sabbatical in. A few days spent knocking on doors and meeting people face-to-face can often turn up potential jobs that never get advertised.
If your search comes up empty, remember that you possess one skill that is always in high demand in many parts of the world ? the ability to speak English. “There are one billion people in the world who want to speak English,” says Hachey. In many cases all you need is a university degree in any subject. Being an English teacher may not pay much, but it can often lead to other, more lucrative and interesting possibilities. I know of one former Canadian social worker who went to Japan as an English teacher and went on to become a highly paid executive recruiter in Tokyo.
Hachey believes that just about anyone who truly wants to work abroad can find a job. The real question, he says, is whether you want to adapt to life in a different society. For some people, change is a tonic; for others, a constant annoyance. “If you don’t like challenges and have only ever vacationed in Florida, then you might not be suited for life overseas,” he cautions.
Even if you’re a flexible globetrotter, look carefully into individual situations because some foreign postings can be just plain nasty. Two years ago Sean O’Toole accepted a one-year teaching exchange, swapping his comfortable high school teaching job in Bracebridge, Ont., plus his house and truck, with a high school teacher from Darwin, Australia. By comparison, the Titanic was a minor shipping incident. While I can personally attest to Melbourne’s fantastic restaurants, parks and museums, not all parts of Australia are as nice. Darwin is a hot and sweaty northern port town with a bare-knuckles reputation. Add to this a car that wouldn’t run and a dismal work environment and O’Toole quickly found himself dwelling on the down in Down Under. “I was stuck in a crappy house with a crappy car,” he recalls. “I was not adequately prepared for my classes and the students could have cared less about their work.” Five weeks after he arrived, O’Toole had enough. He quit the job, toured around Australia with his wife until their savings dried up and then flew home.
Well, not home exactly. His exchange partner, who was thoroughly enjoying the Muskoka lifestyle, had the right to stay in his house, drive his truck and work his job for the rest of the year. O’Toole found himself jobless, houseless and without transportation. And his wife was pregnant.
Now happy to be back in his old job and house, he believes that he knew what he did wrong. “I didn’t do my research properly,” he admits. “I should have found out more about the school and the town. And I should have understood better why I wanted to go away.” He now recognizes that a leave of absence and a world tour would have scratched his itch better than a tour of duty in Darwin.
If you’re up for the challenge of living abroad and have found a job, then it’s time to start arranging your finances. “People have a tendency to focus on good-bye parties and travel plans,” says Tom Boleantu, president of The Expatriate Club in Calgary, which offers financial advice to people going abroad. “But you can’t just take off. There are important financial issues that must be dealt with and these take time.”
An accountant can help guide you through the process. One issue is whether you will remain a Canadian resident for tax purposes. If you’re leaving for only a year, it’s probably not worth the hassle to change your tax status, but you will need to make plans for your RRSPs and other investments. This could include switching to a managed portfolio as it can be difficult ? illegal in some places ? to give your broker instructions from another country.
If you own your house, you will want to rent it out to at least cover the mortgage and other costs. This means drawing up a lease, finding suitable tenants and making repairs as needed. Consider selling your vehicles or loaning them to family members who can pay for the upkeep (but be clear on your expectations for maintenance and insurance). Wipe off any other debts or encumbrances so that you can concentrate on funding your life abroad.
Spend some time thinking about how you will be arranging your finances in your new country. If you will be relying on salaries or savings from back home, you have several options for bringing your money over for a visit. Credit cards and ATMs can be handy, but their convenience usually comes at the cost of lousy exchange rates or hefty fees. It pays to check out alliances between international banks, as this can reduce the surcharges. In many cases, the best way to manage monthly transfers from the old country is to contact a currency trading firm such as Custom House ( www.customhouse.com) or the currency trading arm of a bank. Ask them about buying what’s known as a forward contract in the foreign currency. This will give you the best exchange rate, the lowest fees and the ability to lock in the exchange rate for the entire year you are away.
From the June/July 2003 issue.