Expat Accompanying Partner: Job Hunting Tips From An Expert

Finding a job abroad, when you don’t know the culture, the language and you can’t rely on any support network is a daunting task.

No wonder that one of the major reasons employees refuse an assignment abroad is because of their spouse’s lack of professional opportunities.

Job hunting abroad? A daunting task!

Job hunting abroad? A daunting task!

A 2012 Permits Foundation study of 177 companies managing 130,000 expatriates found that 50% of employers face this situation.

Having a job is not only an important part of your identity. Nowadays, it also means financial independence, intellectual stimulation and social integration. It prevents a huge imbalance in the couple relationship too.

Janet Scarborough Civitelli

Janet Scarborough Civitelli

Janet Scarborough Civitelli is the author of “Help Me Find A Career: Strategies To Choose Work You Will Love”. She has been a psychologist and career counselor for 20 years. 

She has coached numerous expatriates and accompanying partners. 

For her husband’s career, she moved four times in three years so she has got some experience herself with mobility issues even if she hasn’t changed country. 

In this interview you’ll learn:

  • how to deal with the gaps in your CV
  • what to do if you can’t find work in your host country
  • what you need to study to maximize your chances to land a job abroad
  • what to do if you don’t know anyone
  • two myths about starting a new business (provided you have a working permit!)
  • Janet’s own experience with a portable career


Anne: Let’s first consider the expat accompanying spouse freshly arrived in the host country. What would you recommend as first action to do?

Janet: First, it might be helpful to decide if the highest priority is finding work or if other areas need attention sooner. If there are pressing financial concerns, then it makes sense to focus on earning money as soon as possible. But some families have a bit of breathing room and might decide to prioritize other needs before work and career.

For instance, many families with children need some time for the children to transition into new educational settings and it might be challenging to facilitate this at the same time as starting a new job. Also, many families decide it is a priority to make some friends before they do anything else because it helps to reduce the sense of isolation in a new place.

What is right for one family isn’t right for another one.

The most important thing is to be clear about the priorities so that time management can be handled accordingly.


Anne: Some people fear that if they don’t start right away, the gap in their CV will make potential employers wary of their competence. Is this fear justified according to your experience?

Janet: Yes, I see why people have that concern because some recruiters are very preoccupied about gaps. Some hiring manager are, too. There are several ways to deal with this.

First, it is important to really explore your values about balancing competitiveness in the labor market with other priorities. I never recommend ignoring it completely but I do think there are times in life when a single-minded laser focus on work competitiveness will exact a high cost in other areas.

For many people, there are times when it can be a sane and strategic decision to let competitiveness take a backseat for a period of time to accomplish some other life goals. I find that people who do this intentionally and have a plan for how they will re-enter the workplace are usually able to do so.

Second, it is smart to think ahead about how one will explain employment gaps. I have found that people who do so confidently and non-defensively fare much better than people who are struggling with fear and shame about having put work second for awhile. Clients who excitedly describe their sabbatical where they focused on travel and family and their enthusiasm now for returning to work are well-received by many hiring managers who have either done the same thing or wish they had. These supportive hiring managers tend to be the best bosses, too, by the way.

Third, employment gaps are not so much of a problem if you fill them with anything productive. Consulting, writing a book, freelancing, volunteer work, etc. The only caveat is that if your commitment is to focus on a different life priority than work for awhile, you don’t want to inadvertently become so busy that you lose track of your plan.

The important thing is to be intentional about choices.


Anne: With such a change (from country, language, culture) and if the trailing spouse cannot find a similar job position than she used to have previously (and this can happen for various reasons: language barrier, lack of diploma recognition for example), what would you recommend?

Janet: Evaluate what skills and experiences are valued in the marketplace and start taking action to build momentum.

Taking consistent small steps every week is better than a flurry of activity and then nothing for months.

Many location-independent jobs require skills that can be learned online and there has never been a better time in the history of the planet to learn new skills and to do so inexpensively. You can learn anywhere you have a reliable Internet connection. Even reading a book or two about a topic will mean you know more than a lot of people.

I consistently find that people assume everyone else is brilliant and experienced but the reality is, everyone is figuring stuff out as they go, just like you.

If someone finds that they are unable to take action and they just need a little bit of help to get going, career coaches can assist clients with creating structure, taking action, and problem-solving as the inevitable obstacles arise. Many of us work via Skype and telephone so that geographic location of coach and client are no longer barriers to connecting.


Anne: How do you look for a job when you have no network and you don’t know the culture?


The best way to look for a job is to look for bridges between your past connections and career history and the new geographic location.

For instance, using a language you know, knowledge about a place you lived, or a very specific job-related skill to land a new job. I’ve seen people land jobs because they spoke Portuguese, because they knew how to use a particular type of software, or because they were from a specific region of a country. Use whatever is unique about you as a competitive advantage!

Note from Anne: This is beautifully illustrated by what Jeff Cady, a male accompanying spouse, wrote to me a few days ago.

“What I’ve learned related to my career is that in order to be successful, I had to think further beyond matching my resume to an appropriate company. I had to think about what set me apart in Mexico (and future posts)… and I made two realizations. One, I’m in a perfect “seam” in between the Embassy (of my country) and the local economy. The Embassy has policy priorities it wants to accomplish with the host country, and organizations on the local economy obviously each have their own objectives. When I was able to identify areas of overlap between the objectives between the Embassy and local organizations, I was successful in generating interest from these local companies.”

Janet: It is worth backing up to do some career exploration before launching a job search. I can’t emphasize enough how difficult it is to look for a job if you don’t have a focus first…it is like packing for a vacation without having any idea whether you are going on a ski trip at the mountains, a beach trip at the ocean, or an urban walking tour of the major museums and art galleries across several cities.

I always recommend getting additional support and help if you feel stuck. Start with your friends back home if you aren’t sure you want to hire a career coach. Ask them to review your career history and brainstorm ideas with you about what career path you might explore. Then even if you do decide to hire a career coach later, the career coach will likely be interested in reviewing this feedback about you.

Anne: After identifying your areas of expertise, where do you start? You’re at home. You don’t know anybody. You’re crippled with anxiety and fear, intimidated. How do you break the ice?

Janet: If you are truly suffering from diagnosable anxiety, I would get help from a therapist. But most people who say they are crippled with anxiety and fear actually mean they just aren’t sure of the next step and their anxiety level isn’t so high that it prevents action.

The best antidote for uncertainty and stress about career path is to start taking small concrete actions.

Seek out people and have conversations.

If you have any religious or spiritual leanings, go to a church/temple/mosque, etc. and ask questions about the employment climate. Universities are often centers of learning and knowledge about all sorts of things including employment-related topics. Enrolling in a class can often secure you access to university-based career counselors. Explore whether there are government-sponsored workshops, programs, or career counseling.

Libraries are another possible source of information not just because of the books but because they often offer career-related programming. Volunteering is often a great path to both making connections and gaining new skills, and this is something that can usually be done even if there are work visa issues. Worst case scenario is that you are in a rural area with few options and then you’ll have to rely on online groups and forums.


Anne: Do you have experience with people who are starting a business?

 Janet: Yes, I am a huge fan of creating employment if you can’t find what you need within an organization or just prefer the autonomy of running your own business. For most skills, you can find a way to create self-employment and often achieve profitability faster than you’d think. Looking long-term, self-employment is a great way to avoid the big hit in income that happens every time you relocate again.

Sometimes people say, “Oh, I could never be self-employed because it involves selling,” but when you think about it, so does job search!

Expats say, “I can’t start a business because I’m new here and I don’t have a sufficient network”

But if only people with big established networks started new businesses, there would be few new businesses indeed.

Social media has made it easier to build a customer base more quickly than in the past. In my neighborhood, a woman started a cake business by creating a Facebook page and uploading photos of her cakes to it. Within a short period of time, 1300 people “liked” her page and she started generating a lot of word-of-mouth buzz about how creative her decorated cakes are. She is running a thriving business now.

People also have this fear that you have to be young to be entrepreneurial. It isn’t true.

A recent study found that twice as many successful entrepreneurs are over 50 as under 25. 


Anne: Portable career, is this the best advice for expat spouses? And how to transition from a career in a fixed place to a portable one?

 Janet: Well, “best” depends on a particular person’s situation and needs. Not every career can be portable, but when possible, the tremendous advantage to portable careers is that once you have them up and running, you can relocate without a big hit to your income. For expat spouses who may be tired of starting over every time they move, this can be a fantastic relief.

The first step is building your reputation by offering your service or product to the first set of customers or clients. Based on what you learn from this experience, you fine tune and improve. Experience is a far better teacher than all the planning in the world, so it is better to get started than to wait for a mythical perfect business plan.

A website and a social media presence are essential, and it may be helpful to join a professional association or become involved in a specific industry that can connect you to potential clients or customers.

It is key to find other people with portable careers because if you can see others being successful, it can inspire and encourage you when you have doubts that such a career is possible. Even one role model is better than having none.


Anne: Janet, drawing from your experience with a portable career, what would you say has been the most helpful and the most challenging?

Most of my friends and colleagues don’t have a portable career because it wasn’t as important to them to build it as it was for me. I’m the only one who moved four times in three years so it was a higher priority to me because I knew my family would likely move again and I would want to take my job with me.

The one thing I realized is that you can’t do it alone.

I don’t know of a ready-made community that one can jump into…I think you have to build your own that is tailor-made for what you need. You find out by trial-and-error what communities are likely to have members who will make up your tribe. For example, if you are in Australia and you want to be a trainer, look for organizations that have “training” in the name. A bit of research would lead you to the Australian Society for Training and Development, Inc. They provide advice, training, and networking opportunities. They also have a LinkedIn group.

You can also look for groups of entrepreneurs/freelancers in your neighborhood.

Building a community to support you doesn’t happen overnight. I’m still building mine.

But finding a few key people makes the difference between feeling connected and engaged vs. feeling isolated and alone.


When I was writing my first book, a coaching colleague I met online offered to mentor me and check in weekly to see how much progress I had made. The accountability was invaluable and it kept me going even when the book took three times longer than I expected. I’ve never met her in person and we live thousands of miles apart but I give her a lot of credit in helping me finish the book. (Thank you, Pat Katepoo of WorkOptions.com!)

Thanks a lot Janet, for sharing your experience.


1. Build bridges between your former experience and your new country
2. Seek people and have conversations
3. Don’t remain isolated

If you’re looking for a community of like-minded people willing to understand and support each other in the different challenges of the expat life, join us.

And let’s have a conversation. A meaningful one.



Note: There is no affiliate link on this site, which means that I’m not earning any money from pointing out commercial resources.



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