Internationalize yourself!

Discussion and interest towards international study and work opportunities have been prevalent for a few years, and many consider these possibilities first while studying and then later after graduation. On the other hand, in the current challenging economy, many of those who already have work experience under their belts are left looking at foreign countries to find work equivalent to their educational background and previous work experience. In this blog post I ponder on the significance of international work experience and the opportunities it offers, based on my own life choices.

Many young people take their first international steps through student exchange programs while in higher education. This is what I did as well, when I started in a university it was clear to me that I would do an exchange program at some point. My interest towards foreign countries was sparked during my teenage years when my brother moved abroad to work. Until then travelling to abroad had meant to our family boat cruises to Stockholm across the Gulf of Bothia. So what my brother did was groundbreaking, and during my summer trips to visit him my eyes opened as well. So the grass at least has a different shade, maybe it´s even greener, on the other side of the fence. I was enthralled by how different and yet how similar people are, and fascinated by new cultures when it came to food, drinks, architecture and nature in its different forms, and slowly also by international business. I spent my student exchange year in Krakow, in Southern Poland, and returned to Finland only to graduate and get a few years of work experience. Now that I have lived permanently in Poland for six years I can say that I would not change a day.

What are the advantages of having international experience then? Upon returning to Finland from my student exchange, I noticed that I looked at people and things more open-mindedly and thought out of the box. That year changed a lot for me, because I knew that I wanted to return abroad for good… Still, I believe that open-mindedness, new perspectives and improved language skills are the greatest benefits gained through international experience. All of these can be put to good use in everyday life and at work, which for many of us is increasingly international. In many companies work is done in multinational teams, or at least customers and stakeholders might be across the borders. In these situations cultural differences may arise, and understanding them and relating to them in the right way as well as the aforementioned language skills are valuable resources.

Employers who appreciate international experience see the aforementioned attributes as well as knowledge of different cultures as strengths when making hiring decisions. A person who has lived abroad has also shown that he or she is independent and able to make important decisions and leave their comfort zone. A person like this is very likely to be open-minded and quick to adapt to new situations, and not be afraid of challenges or changes. All of these are qualities that every employer appreciates.

In return, internationality can lead to positive changes in your personal life in the form of a new boy- or girlfriend, a potential future spouse. Multinational families are starting to be more a rule rather than an exception, especially among those who have worked abroad for longer periods of time. And if luck strikes,, and an international family is blessed with children, what’s a better resource to a child than two mother tongues and multi-cultural background. On the other hand, even if you don’t find your better half, at least your group of friends and social network expands greatly, even more if you socialize also with locals and other expats, not only with your countrymen. I’m not saying that knowing expatriates from your home country isn’t a good addition to your network, it is. All these connections will help you in your personal and professional life. Through my friends from my student exchange days in Poland I found a translator who helped with all the paperwork of setting up a company, and an accountant to consult with complicated tax forms. Not to mention the numerous invitations to different European countries and the Americas.

From family planning and the importance of networking back to the main topic – going abroad. When interest towards moving or student exchange has been sparked, what do you do then? Student exchanges programs are easy to arrange through your own school’s office of international affairs and you may find support through the application process from other students who have already been abroad. If you are looking for job opportunities, there are countless channels and excess of choice. Job opportunities inside the EU can be searched through, for example, EURES and various other international job search websites. Maybe the most difficult decision you must make it choosing the country or countries where you want to move, or finding the job opportunity that you are looking for in the city of your dreams.

When considering international job opportunities, a few decisions need to be made regarding the work you are looking for:

  1. Is your native language required/not required
  2. Is English enough or do you need to speak the local language
  3. The significance of your educational background and previous work experience

Once you have made the choices that best suit you, and have decided on a country or a continent, outlining your options gets easier. If you are from a Nordic country and interested in using your native language in your work, today you hardly need to look far in your job search, because on the other side of the bay in Tallinn there are various different job opportunities for speakers of Scandinavian languages. As outsourcing boom accelerates, Poland in the southern bank of the Baltic Sea is fast becoming a growing and internationalizing mecca for outsourcing business processes. Poland has the biggest service and outsourcing center concentration in Europe and invites  thousands of workers from abroad to work with the most influential brands in the world in, for example, customer service, accounting, and IT functions. Those who speak some Nordic language are considered valuable, and different types of work opportunities are on the rise. There was a time when all you needed was the language skills, but nowadays there are job opportunities also for specialists, for example, from freight forwarders to payroll administration or tax specialists. Sure there are still ‘language bonus’ jobs in the British Isles as well as in other parts of the so called West Europe, like Mediterranean countries. Au pairs are sought everywhere. The sky is the limit!

And to return to the importance of personal connections, those friends you made abroad can be your ticket to the start of your new career. Use your connections, because if you don’t, someone else will and then that door is closed for you.

While writing this blog I am sitting on a direct flight from Krakow to Helsinki that takes less than two hours. Even though you live far away in a foreign country, these days every corner of Europe is so close to the homely Scandinavia that distance is not an acceptable excuse not to experience something new. Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb wrote in a column in the April edition of Finnair’s magazine that he always tells young people to listen to their hearts, believe in their dreams and work hard to realize them. I agree wholeheartedly and encourage everyone who has the chance to take part in a study exchange program or a year of temporary work abroad to go for it, if you are even a little bit drawn to foreign countries. I believe it is worth it just for the fact that everyone discovers new sides to themselves in a foreign environment. The world changes, so change with it and dare to push your limits, if you get the chance. Go, experience, learn and draw from those experiences. You shouldn’t always consider money the only motivator; often it’s the experiences and what you become with time that rewards you in a long run. The financial reward will be given once you learn to use your resources right.

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