Posted abroad

A few pick up and go to stay; most accept short-term assignments. Americans with jobs overseas describe their corners of a new world.

By , Special correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

When it comes to job opportunities overseas, Kraig Rice knows what he's talking about. As a researcher and coauthor of the book "International Job Finder: Where the Jobs Are Worldwide" he has spent several months over the past year finding out what jobs were available where, and how to get them.

"I encourage people who want to work abroad to do so," he says. "I think it's an excellent adventure and it's great experience." Mr. Rice is so enthusiastic about working overseas that he wound up taking his own advice – and moved to Kiev at the end of last month to take on a job he actually found while researching his book.

"I couldn't pass up an opportunity like that," he says of his job with the International Research and Exchanges Board, a nongovernmental organization that administers development programs in several countries.

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As a former student of Russian history and Slavic languages, Rice had always wanted to work in the former Soviet Union but had kept getting sidetracked.

"I got a second chance to do what I'd always planned to do years before," he says.

Rice isn't the only one on the move. Hard statistics on Americans working abroad are difficult to come by, but experts in the international job market say that, in the long term, last year's terrorist attacks have done little to deter overseas-minded Americans from taking on new international postings – or from staying put in foreign jobs they were working in before last September.

In the wake of the attacks, a blip of panic prompted a small number of Americans working abroad to return to home territory, experts say.

But anecdotal evidence suggests most of those returnees went back to their foreign posts within a few months, rejoining a workforce and reentering a lifestyle that continues to hold a strong pull for as many as an estimated 1.5 million Americans working overseas.

What has changed since last September, say experts, is a heightened awareness among those working overseas of possible turmoil where they are stationed – and of the increased risk of being targeted for attack as an American.

"Many people not previously used to having to think about physical safety are now having to think about it," says Timothy Dwyer, national director of international human resources consulting at KPMG LLP, a professional-services firm based in New York.

Steven Shepherd, author of "Managing Cross-Cultural Transition," spends much of his time traveling abroad and consulting with companies about the special issues surounding work abroad.

He says some of the overseas employees he's met are considering options for other jobs or possibly returning home if security threats increase.

But for now, he says, they're staying in their assignments and "becoming much more aware of the issues that could affect the country they're in."

"I was just in Beijing," he says, "and found a heightened awareness among [Americans] there of the fact that there's a significant Muslim population in China."

That had led some to wonder where that particular Muslim population stands in its view of American citizens. "But no one is pulling out. The awareness is just heightened, and that's a good thing," he says, no matter where a person lives.

Experience with unrest

Although the events of last September brought terrorism home for perhaps the first time to the average American, experts point out that Americans working in many countries actually have a much savvier attitude about potential security risks.

Workers in the energy and oil business, for example, particularly in Africa, have long had to protect themselves against domestic political violence.

American executives in South America have often been the target of kidnappers. And even workers in European countries like England and Spain have had to cope with terrorist bombings by groups like the IRA or Basque separatists.

Still, security companies like Vance Executive Protection, which provides security details for high-profile individuals traveling overseas, say they've been inundated with requests for information about how to safeguard employees traveling and living abroad.

"When you go overseas, you've got to act like the people over there," says Andrew Podolak, managing director for the company's education and training business. "Americans tend to go overseas and show everybody they're Americans. They wear shirts that say 'Harvard' or 'MCI,' and essentially point themselves out as targets or potential kidnapping victims.

"You need to fit in," Mr. Podolak adds. "The whole key is to fit in with the culture."

Fitting in with the culture means learning things like what is insulting in the country that is your new home – knowing, for example, that in Argentina, a thumbs-up gesture is considered obscene (as is snapping your fingers in Belgium), or that writing in red ink in China is seen as a hostile indication that the writer is severing all ties with the person to whom he's writing.

Experts say there are any number of simple steps that can be taken to not draw attention to one's nationality.

"I've heard of some parents in Germany who tell their children to speak German when they're on the street, not English," says Daniel Lauber, coauthor of "International Job Finder."

In special, threatening circumstances, Mr. Lauber even counsels fibbing. "Just say you're Canadian," he says.

Help from headquarters

Some overseas workers have also been given a helping hand from their employers, many of whom have long offered cross-cultural training programs for employees taking on overseas postings.

In the wake of Sept. 11, say experts, many corporations have also paid much more serious attention to developing evacuation programs for their expat workers in the event of security concerns.

When New York Life moved Georgia Suranofsky to Hong Kong earlier this year, for example, she not only received cross-cultural training and relocation assistance, she also was extensively briefed by a firm hired by New York Life on how to get out of the country as quickly as possible in case of an emergency.

"They go through the whole program with you," she says. "We have a website for 24-hour access to information, and cards with toll-free numbers that we carry with us all the time that have all the information we need to contact anyone for help."

Not every employer, however, has been so diligent.

According to Mr. Dwyer of KPMG, an ongoing web-based survey by his organization shows that only about 26 percent of more than 60 companies who have responded to the survey to date have specific evacuation programs in place.

Only 27 percent have contracted with an emergency-service provider – such as New York Life has done – to provide evacuations in case of a crisis.

Some companies, he says, don't even have an accurate count of how many employees are in one particular place at any given time.

"I find it a bit disappointing," he says. "There are many organizations that pay a lot of short-term immediate attention when a difficult situation occurs in the world. But as soon as it fades from the headlines, they really don't do much in the way of long-term action."

A determined group

Regardless of what employers do or don't do, however, experts say one thing is certain: Those who choose to live and work abroad are a distinctly determined group of people, independent-minded individuals who so value the experience of living in a foreign culture that even widely perceived security risks are not likely to deter them from living abroad.

"What I've seen among international job-seekers," says author Lauber, "is that there's something very often about a particular country that just grabs them.

"There's this visceral connection between that individual and a country," he says, that may last a lifetime or play out in a few years.

It's a phenomenon Lauber has observed up close – losing his colleague Kraig Rice to the call of Kiev.

Rice, for his part, says he's completely comfortable with his new job and life, even in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"I think there are always going to be dangers," he says. "I think that you have to be cautious, but I don't think you can live [being] paranoid. Interestingly enough, it might even be safer in Kiev than it is in New York. Who knows?"

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