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Portable Professions

Rebecca Law explores the traps and secret passageway of the professional life of a trailing spouse.

When life moves abroad, shouldn't the career follow?

I am a butcher; I am an architect. It is perhaps no coincidence that we employ the verb to be when describing our professions. Anyone who has built himself or herself a career will understand that it is as intrinsic to their identity as the fact that they are, for example, female or that they might be bald. When it comes to careers, we do not just do, we are.

The prospect therefore of giving up a thriving career to accompany a spouse who has been deployed internationally could potentially leave the “trailing spouse” with a gaping hole in their lives and, whilst the prospect of spending days lying in the sun, topping up the tan and sipping leisurely at cocktails should fill most with delight, faced with this long-term, even the least erudite spouse will, after a short while, find themselves at best, twiddling their thumbs looking for something less frivolous to fill their days, and at worst, tearing their hair out from sheer frustration.

Recent statistics in Working Abroad: The Complete Guide to Overseas Employment by Godfrey Golzen and Jonathan Reuvid show that 60% of expatriate spouses had worked prior to their partner’s overseas assignment but only 16% had worked during the assignment. My own research shows that in most cases, this is not through choice. English teacher, Jane Colman, explained how her vocation was quelled when she followed her husband on an assignment to the Gulf, for the simple reason that she was a woman. “As a woman, I was only permitted to teach other women and the work simply wasn’t available,” she says. Ingeborg Hudson remarked that her career also took a nose-dive when she started following her husband on his overseas assignments. Each time they moved, her natural nesting instinct would take over and compel her to create a “home” for her family and, as soon as she found time to focus on her career again, it was time to move on.

Although companies are wising-up to the gravity of the predicament faced by the trailing spouse and the impact this can have on the success of the assignment as a whole, the number of companies who offer any assistance is still relatively small. According to research carried out by relocation company ECA, only 12% of companies have established a support policy.

For those left to cope without any form of institutional support, perhaps a little solace and inspiration can be drawn from the case of international author, Jo Parfitt, who proves that all is not lost when you up sticks and go.

Before accompanying her husband Ian on a posting to Dubai back in 1987, Jo had been running her own thriving business in the UK, writing computer manuals and teaching word-processing. The stamping of “not permitted to take up employment” in her passport on arrival in Dubai, therefore came as somewhat of a shock.

“I was soon bored and desperate to find a way of filling my days that would not get me deported,” she says. Refusing to be defeated, she discovered after a little research, that she was in fact permitted to work, as long as she found an employer to give her a work permit.

Having worked out how to clear the first hurdle with relative ease, Jo’s momentum suddenly ground to a crashing halt at the second; her analysis of the local market had shown that there was little need for computer handbooks in Dubai, and, since she was working in the days before the internet explosion, writing manuals for the UK market was not a viable option either.

This is a problem that will be faced by many who seek to employ their existing skill-set in a new country. Cultures vary greatly from country to country as therefore, do local market needs; a beer salesman would probably find his business “drying-up” if he were to relocate to Kazakhstan, for example or, to use the redundant adage, “carrying coals to Newcastle” would prove a dead weight to the bearer.

 “I realised that I needed to create a niche,” says Jo. “A few months later I had a work permit from a recruitment agency, and in return I provided a curriculum vitae writing service and one-to-one computer training courses. I was still writing and still teaching, but thanks to a little lateral thinking, I had found a new way of making these skills work in a different location”.  

In the ensuing ten years, Jo and her family lived in four different countries, yet despite the odds, she sustained her, admittedly varied, career throughout. She puts this down to a few simple steps, which she has applied repeatedly to reinvent herself professionally in each new location. For the successful portable career, she suggests firstly that you look inside yourself for what you love to do.

“If you are to stay motivated enough to be able to repeatedly put down and pick up a career, then you must do something you enjoy”.

Then, you should look outside at your current location and see what opportunities there are.

“When I arrived in Dubai, I heard people complaining that no-one offered a CV writing service; proactive jobseekers notice what people moan about and turn those problems into career opportunities.”

“I found as many ways as possible to bend my core skills and passions,” she says. Despite living in four countries during the decade, she managed to uphold a career in some capacity by, for example, making and selling date chutney, teaching French, creative writing and computers. She became a journalist, wrote manuals and newsletters and even self-published a cookery book.

It is this willingness to revise her career at every stage, which has proved critical to Jo’s success; she has not merely tried to transpose her career rigidly from one location to the next but has assessed the transferable skills she developed back in England and has applied them appropriately according to the market. Jo’s case shows that if you are prepared to look, the opportunities are endless, proving that when you are off to foreign lands, you don’t need to leave your career behind on home ground.

For more advice and ideas from Jo on how to reformat your career to suit a mobile lifestyle, go to: