Volume 86 Issue 28 | pp. 48-50
Issue Date: July 14, 2008

Tips for Overseas Assignments

Working abroad requires preparation, support, and flexibility
Department: Career & Employment
Seeing Wildlife
Carolyn & Al Ribes enjoy a 10-day cruise in Antarctica.
Credit: Courtesy of Carolyn & Al Ribes
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Seeing Wildlife
Carolyn & Al Ribes enjoy a 10-day cruise in Antarctica.
Credit: Courtesy of Carolyn & Al Ribes

ANALYTICAL chemist Carolyn Ribes has made four moves in her career with Dow. She has moved to Louisiana; Texas; Bahia Blanca, Argentina, and her current posting is in Terneuzen, the Netherlands, where she has lived for two years. "After going to Argentina, we decided we'd like to live a long time overseas," she says. "We" includes her husband, Al, also a Dow chemist, who is a native Spanish speaker. The move to Terneuzen is permanent in every sense of the word: The couple sold their house and cars and shipped all of their possessions over from the U.S.

In Argentina, the Ribeses helped establish a new polyethylene plant and trained the chemists who would staff the facility. The move to the Netherlands was prompted by "their interest in making a lifestyle change and learning more about a different geographic region," Carolyn says. She took a position as a technical leader within Dow Analytical Sciences and works with the process analytical team in Europe. Her team works on projects across Europe, Asia, and North America as part of a global organization. Al was also in Analytical Sciences, and he has since transitioned into a "master black belt position" in Six Sigma, a quality improvement initiative. He works now in the Performance Plastics & Chemicals Group and travels extensively across Europe to coach and train others in various work projects.

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The Ribeses represent a population of U.S.-based chemical professionals who become sometime or permanent expatriates as they carry international roles for their companies. The blurring of science borders around the world and the globalization of trade offers opportunities for U.S. companies to seek international partners. Earlier this year, U.S. companies reported plans to increase both capital and research expenditures worldwide (C&EN, Feb. 18, page 11)—presenting opportunities for chemists to employ their skills and knowledge in an overseas assignment.

Are chemical jobs open overseas to Americans? Absolutely. Many multinational companies have tens of thousands of employees located around the world. Dow has 46,000 employees in 52 countries, for example. Johnson & Johnson has 104,000 employees in 50 countries, and DuPont has 60,000 employees in more than 70 countries.

Despite turbulent world events, U.S. firms are optimistic about the current and future growth of expatriate activity. According to the "2008 Global Relocation Trends Survey," from GMAC Global Relocation Services, 49% of U.S.-based companies expect an increase in their expatriate populations in 2008. Study participants included such chemical employers as 3M, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Eli Lilly, Johnson & Johnson, and Lubrizol. This continuing optimism in the industry is linked to business trends such as commercial growth within the European Union and the growth of the Chinese economy, that have created large and open marketplaces.

Taking an overseas assignment requires lots of preparation, personal flexibility, and a network of support both at home and abroad. To help in this regard, companies that send employees abroad often do provide cultural training and language classes. Although Dow enrolled the Ribeses in Berlitz Dutch classes, they might have opted to sign up for language classes at a nearby community college.

The time invested in preparation is well worth the effort, say those who have done it, because the result can be a rewarding and unforgettable experience. Here are some tips so you can eventually pack your bags.

1. Position yourself.

Expat Office
AMRI's new R&D center in Hyderabad, India.
Credit: AMRI
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Expat Office
AMRI's new R&D center in Hyderabad, India.
Credit: AMRI

For a multinational company like Dow, it's a good sign if someone says they're open for international travel, Carolyn says. "While there are lots of reasons for people not to move around—dual career, children, and family responsibilities—it is a good idea to mention it early on," she says, referring to the willingness to take on overseas posts. International travel is part of her employee development plan at Dow.

Randy Hughes is director of human resources at AMRI, a global contract, research, and manufacturing company with headquarters in Albany, N.Y., but which also has locations in Singapore, India, and Hungary. He advises taking time to learn about the company first before applying for an overseas position. At AMRI, he says, it is typical for individuals being considered for overseas assignments to have a few to several years of AMRI experience prior to being tapped for overseas work.

"We like people to have a solid grasp of how the company works and its culture," he says. "Someone who comes to us with work experience might go overseas within a year. We'd want the individual to completely understand our way of doing business, how we execute projects, and be familiar with our laboratory process before going abroad."

AMRI's expat program began out of the need to provide leadership and support to start-up operations outside of the U.S. as part of the company's strategic plan to expand geographically. Those initial expats were generally experienced, senior-level staff with expertise in both science and business operations, Hughes says.

As operations outside of the U.S. have expanded, so have international opportunities for employees. Assignment lengths vary from a few months to a few years. To ensure individuals applying for expat assignments are well informed, AMRI holds companywide information sessions about the realities of an overseas assignment. Short-term assignments involve setting up labs and mentoring overseas staff in how things are done at AMRI.

According to Hughes, the leader of each business area largely determines who is selected for short-term assignments on the basis of job performance as well as their ability to adapt to new situations and to be open to change. "The best way they can position themselves as a successful candidate is to work hard, learn all they can about AMRI, and let us know they're interested," he adds.

2. Untangle the red tape.

For chemists who are employed in the U.S. offices of multinational companies, their company generally takes care of obtaining the relevant visas and work permits, as well as handling other important paperwork. One important service is tax equalization, whereby the company reimburses the employee if the employee's taxes in the foreign assignment are higher than if he or she stayed in the U.S. This is an important consideration if your posting is in Mumbai, India, for example, which is an expensive place to live. Currency protection is also important in hedging against local currency swings and protecting purchasing power overseas. Hughes says that when he first started traveling to India two years ago, the exchange rate was 48 rupees to the dollar, but the rate has gone as low as 39 rupees.

Besides travel and work documentation and payroll and tax issues, AMRI expats receive assistance with practical matters such as housing, benefit plans while living abroad, schools for dependents, and cultural education.

The Ribeses worked with a relocation agent who had been hired through Dow for their move. The agent helped them with such tasks as registering for a social security number, finding a house, and locating a doctor and a dentist. The agent also accompanied Carolyn to hand over all the visa paperwork in person to the proper authorities in the Netherlands.

Dealing with bureaucracy require a new way of thinking when living abroad. "We would get letters from the city and not understand what they were about," Ribes recalls. "We had saved data that we needed to fill out U.S. taxes but not Dutch taxes. You have to get used to asking for help that you might not necessarily ask for."

Other details to keep in mind when you're contemplating a move abroad are less obvious, Ribes says. Will you keep a U.S. address? How will you pay your bills? Will your bank or mutual funds accept deposits from overseas? Will your driver's license expire while you're away?

3. Marshal your resources.

Lots of online resources are available if you're heading abroad. The State Department has a wealth of information on its website, travel.state.gov, for example. "Tips for Americans Residing Abroad" (www.pueblo.gsa.gov/cic_text/state/americansabroad.html) is a guide with answers to questions that many people forget to ask, such as tax obligations on income earned overseas, keeping a U.S.-dollar bank account, and what kind of driver's license you might need in your new location. Are you looking for travel warnings, airport security tips, or current currency exchange rates? Head on over to USA.gov, the government's official Web portal, for information to ensure a smooth journey (www.usa.gov/Citizen/Topics/Travel.shtml).

Websites for expat networks such as American Citizens Abroad (www.aca.ch) and the Association of Americans Resident Overseas (www.aaro.org) also have resources and information for U.S. citizens living overseas. The Peace Corps website (www.peacecorps.gov) offers resources for living and working in multicultural environments and in cultures with different views and values.

A range of publications are available for perusal at your local bookstore. "GenXpat: The Young Professional's Guide to Making a Successful Life Abroad," by Margaret Malewski, provides a fairly comprehensive look at the issues that most expatriates encounter abroad. "The Expert Expat," by Melissa Brayer Hess and Patricia Linderman, is a guidebook of practical suggestions on relocating overseas. William Russell Melton's book, "New American Expat: Thriving and Surviving Overseas in the Post-9/11 World," offers advice on everything from evaluating a foreign position to coming home from an assignment.

4. Get outside your comfort zone.

Once you're in your field location, find ways to practice your newfound language skills with people other than your coworkers. To practice speaking Dutch, Ribes took a class in wine tasting and is now taking a cooking class. Not only is she able to hone her language skills but she's also learning to cook with local ingredients.

"You don't really become fluent unless you're forced to speak the language," she says. "Living in the Netherlands and speaking English is not a problem because it's hard to find someone who doesn't understand English. However, it's still our obligation to learn Dutch. You don't have the option to speak English in every country of the world."

When you land in an overseas location, don't squander the opportunity to explore. Terneuzen's convenient location means the Ribeses can grocery shop in Lille, France; buy a printer in Antwerp, Belgium; and fly out of Brussels.

5. Make the leap.

Volunteering for overseas assignments means relying on certain individual qualities. "Working abroad means being extremely flexible and willing to live with uncertainty," says Ribes. "You have to be willing to change the way you do things or at least understand that people around you do them differently." Those qualities will help a person conquer obstacles such as bureaucratic red tape, unfamiliar customs, and homesickness.

Global scientific collaboration has opened up a world of possibilities for chemists' employment. Short-term assignments provide travel opportunities, experience with other cultures, and insight into how scientists in other countries approach their research. Long-term transfers can result in new friendships, newfound language skills, and knowledge that can enhance careers back in the U.S.

 
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