Opinion

A bright spot for American workers – in other countries

Are Americans really doing everything in their power to find work if they aren’t willing to leave the friendly fifty? The coming global talent crunch gives well-trained American workers an advantage. Work abroad awaits Americans willing to chase it down.

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After finishing a PhD in journalism in 2009, I was unable to find an academic job in the United States. I applied for 20 positions, got three interviews, and one offer. A fourth interview at The University of Missouri, for which I had a plane ticket in hand, was cancelled when the state legislature announced it was destitute and froze public hiring.

My lone offer, a position at The American University in Cairo, was a happy fit. My research and reporting primarily focus on the Arab world, my wife and I had both studied Arabic and spent time living in Jordan, and we were open to living abroad again. Off we went to Egypt.

Our two years here were well worth it. I’m returning to the US without most of my student loan debt and to a good job at the University of Maine. My sense is that a primary reason I was hired at a university in rural New England is because of global perspectives I can bring students.

While I have an advanced degree and speak a second language, I’m not a narrow exception; increasingly, work abroad awaits Americans willing to chase it down.

US advantage in coming global talent crunch

An under-emphasized situation that will give well-trained American workers an advantage is the coming global talent crunch. “Most developed countries will experience a shortage of people as the century progresses,” wrote Joseph Nye in “The Future of Power.”

Talent shortages have already emerged in the high-salary markets of Germany, Japan, and Sweden, with ever-greater pressure to come. A mixture of at least 83 countries and territories, Mr. Nye says, have fertility rates below those necessary for population replacement. The US will likely be the only wealthy nation to see its population grow over the next three decades.

Maddy Dychtwald and Christine Larson, authors of the book “Influence,” a treatise on women’s economic power, argue that “the raging war for talent” might be “the most influential power shift of the coming decade.”

Americans are no longer entitled to work at home

Spoiled by a history of relatively low unemployment rates, too many American workers believe that, not only are they entitled in some way to middle-class wages, but are specifically owed such work in Phoenix, Cleveland, or Cheboygan. This led many Americans to anchor themselves to property in communities they couldn’t afford, confident the work they needed would always be there.

Not only are Americans no longer entitled to jobs in Cheboygan, the icier truth is that they may not be entitled to gainful employment in the United States.

A former office manager in New Orleans who has languished out of work for two years need not go on haplessly searching classifieds on the Times-Picayune website. In this case, it’s time to look beyond the friendly fifty. Network news broadcasts in the US frequently introduce viewers to unemployed or underemployed Americans who insist they’ll do anything to find work. But are Americans really doing everything in their power to find work if they aren’t willing to leave Boise or Boston?

After finishing college in the US, my brother-in-law landed a job teaching English in Busan, South Korea. He’s a talented young man, but all he had at the time was a prayer, a diploma, and a gossamer resume typical of a 22 year-old. He found work, though, and he’s not alone; there are over five million non-military Americans living outside the US.

An investment in one's future

Working in a foreign country is not only a way to keep financial body and soul together, but often represents an investment in one’s future, by way of learning a foreign language and gaining greater global expertise. American workers may find jobs domestically that afford them security for the time being, but such positions might not mean much in terms of training for a global economy.

Rewarding work doesn’t abound abroad for all Americans, certainly. Entry-level factory jobs in Brazil and Singapore will not pay American wages. Even so, manufacturing has been a growing industry outside the US, one in need of experienced technicians and innovative leaders.

Americans, technically skilled and educated at the world’s best universities, are attractive to foreign markets in need of a trained workforce. It’s a rough time to be an unemployed American…in America. Things may be brighter abroad.

Justin D. Martin is the CLAS-Honors Preceptor of Journalism at the University of Maine and a columnist for Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin

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