Hays Montrose international consultant Sara Reitze says that more than 50% of the vacancies on the agency’s books are now in Europe, up from last year’s 32% and 1997’s 20%. And the top five countries for these opportunities are Spain, France, Germany, The Netherlands and Poland. Project managers and professional quantity surveyors – not contractors’ QSs – are most in demand, according to Reitze.
She describes the traditional expatriate long-haul destinations in the Far East as “showing signs of life”, but says that many countries’ economies have still not picked up from the economic crisis of 1998. Hong Kong no longer offers the job opportunities it once did, having become “much more of a closed shop than it was” since reverting to Chinese rule.
But there are still some opportunities for those searching for a really different cultural experience, bigger bonuses or tax-free living. India looks set to boom, with openings for civil and consulting engineers as infrastructure improvements take off. As for the rest of the East, the best Reitze can say is: “Project managers and quantity surveyors say that their clients are hopeful of getting business in the Far East during the coming year.”
Reitze says that a lot of British companies are compensating for the Far East downturn by trying to win work in Europe, particularly in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. And professionals in the Far East who found that business dried up during the Asian economic crisis of 1998 are hunting for vacancies in Eastern Europe. Barbara Miller, Ove Arup & Partner’s personnel manager responsible for international assignments, says: “People are interested in seeing a part of the world that was formerly closed.”
According to Phil Turner of Employment Conditions Abroad, working out tax, social security, pension and National Insurance contributions are still the biggest headaches for expats. The single market still has plenty of tax and social security loopholes.
“There’s a lot of paperwork, restrictions and problems with local taxation,” says WS Atkins’ international human resources manager Kim Miller. She adds that couples can have problems getting the right papers. She advises them to make sure that both partners will be able to work if they decide to go abroad.
Ove Arup’s Miller says international experience is becoming more valuable in today’s market: “If someone has been abroad, they are more likely to have the flexibility, tolerance and even language ability to cope with different cultures and ways of doing things.”
With India’s economy growing and population growth now stable, it is one of the few Asian countries offering good prospects for British firms. The business language is English and there is a bias towards British-trained professionals. Infrastructure and transport are the sectors likely to offer the best initial opportunities.
Employment Conditions Abroad describes India as a “hardship country”. Phil James, who runs Bovis’ Indian operation, agrees in part, although he likes the challenge of living in the subcontinent. He has lived all over the world. The 51-year-old project manager explains that it is not that he does not want to live in Britain – it’s just that his name often comes up for foreign assignments because of his international experience.
He says working in India as exhausting and that he needs his 28 days holiday and flights home to recover. “Everyone in India works six days a week, but we also work longer than normal Indian hours. I usually get into the office at about 7.30am and leave anywhere between 6pm and 10pm, partly because of the need to be in the office during UK working hours.”
One of the frustrations of living in India is simply the sheer amount of effort it takes to get anything done at work. “Just because you get commitment at a meeting, it doesn’t mean to say it will happen. You have to chase and chase,” says James. He also finds that getting around the country a chore, despite the fact that he has a driver and an air-conditioned car. “The roads are atrocious. There are potholes, goats, cattle, even people drying their crops on national highways,” he says.
As expected, local food is hot. “I have a lady who comes in and cooks a meal for me in the evenings and it’s inevitably something very spicy,” says James. He has partially adapted his diet and says expats who do not do that end up eating expensive imported items.
Eating out or drinking with colleagues is an occasional rather than a regular habit. They go to the city’s big hotels rather than local restaurants; partly to escape the deafening din outside, partly to lessen the chances of the dreaded Delhi belly.
Bluffer’s guide to foreign living
- Decide whether you want your salary paid in sterling or the local currency. In some areas, such as the Middle East, it’s better to be paid locally, as it is tax free. Some western European countries demand hefty social security payments if paid in the local currency.
- Check that your contract covers insurance, medical insurance (especially in the USA), and whether you will be subject to UK employment protection laws in case of redundancy, racial or sexual harassment, and so on.
- Tax-free earning now only applies if you live and work outside the UK for 365 days from 6 April to 5 April. Foreign earnings deduction was abolished in March 1998.
- Check whether the country you are going to has a reciprocal agreement on social security contributions, otherwise you may end up paying both UK and host country payments.
- Do not accept an assignment until temporary accommodation has been sorted out for you.
- Expect a country briefing and possibly a pre-assignment visit to help you acclimatise.
- Your company should help to organise the shipment of your belongings.
- Check how many flights home you are allocated a year. This depends on your marital status.
- Find out whether your partner can work – for example, in Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to.
- British schools abroad usually only take children up to the age of 13, so think about older children. University-age children may have to pay overseas fees.
- Beware cultural/religious restrictions. In Muslim countries, you cannot drink alcohol or import pork products.
- Some conditions such as asthma or eczema are irritated by tropical climates. Also, find out if you have any food allergies before you leave.
- Finally, ask yourself how adaptable you are – you will need to cope with everyday frustrations, perhaps learn a new language, cope with a different diet, make new friends and be away from your family.