Finding Work as a Trailing Spouse

By Jeff Porter

On March 23, Jeff Porter joined other AAFSW members in a panel discussion on "The Foreign Service: Still in Transition." For those who could not attend the event at the Women’s National Democratic Club, Jeff offers his comments on finding employment as a FS spouse.

Since marrying and becoming labeled a "foreign-born, trailing spouse," I’ve enjoyed the Foreign Service lifestyle and I’ve become increasingly aware of people in the same situation as me: choosing to follow your spouse’s career around the world and moving every few years. I’ve managed to keep myself employed and, importantly, employable by networking and constantly creating future opportunities. Here are some thoughts on the subject:

When seeking work as a trailing spouse in the FS, one decision is whether to seek employment inside or outside the mission. Working in the mission is the comfortable path with a familiar environment, however positions are usually limited and often low paying. In many cases the work can also be very unsatisfying.

This path falls into what I call the "traditional" means of employment: reacting to advertised positions. The FLO/CLO network is the best approach if this method of employment is preferred. Studies have been carried out showing that only about 20% of jobs are acquired by traditional means. About the same number of jobs are obtained by people making a direct approach to an organization without any specific job being advertised. They say, "Here are my skills, and here’s how I can help your company." Try it, it works.

But the most successful means of obtaining a position is through connections-an introduction through a mutual contact. An important fact here is that the majority of these connections are loose ties, i.e. friends of friends. About 65% of jobs are acquired this way. Non-traditional techniques are described in Richard Bolles’ book, What Color is Your Parachute? In the case of trailing spouses, the guidelines in the book apply equally to working in the mission as well as the open economy, locally and in the USA.

We live in an age where technology advances rapidly and improves our ability to work remotely. The concept of a "Virtual Professional" is that many services can be delivered regardless of your geographic location. For the trailing spouse, this means your skills and abilities are portable, allowing you to have continuity of work between assignments and to develop and explore international opportunities.

Managed well, the Virtual Professional approach is a long-term option. Identify your skills and package those skills in a way that can be delivered in a virtual environment. Apply creativity and consider a change of direction, but that’s what FS spouses are good at, right?

Setting up a Virtual Professional "micro-business" is not for everyone and excellent guidance can be obtained in the book, The 2-Second Commute, by Christine Durst and Michael Haaren. Alternatively for those who get the opportunity, FLO’s e-Entrepreneur program run by the authors and supported by State is an excellent workshop to explore this approach.

Increased Internet speed is a major contributor to improved communication. We’re all familiar with email and "listservs" born in the days of dial-up connections, but to some extent this is equivalent to the telegraph when compared with evolving methods of communication. Modern discussion forums and "Communities of Practice" allow flexible communication that inherently build "Knowledge Sharing" environments that are easily searchable.

Voice-Over-Internet services allow us to make "local" phone calls from anywhere in the world and to direct our calls and voice mail wherever we like via the Web and email. And it costs pennies. For example, Skype lets us make free calls to other users around the world. In addition, eFax allows you to receive faxes for free to your email inbox. Online networking systems such as Plaxo and Linked-In help you maintain your contacts and find new contacts anywhere in the world.

Packaging your skills for delivery virtually and getting technology in place are starting points, but like any business, nothing happens until you sell something!

One of the most effective marketing techniques is word of mouth, just like finding a job. People like to deal with recommended people, even if that introduction is a loose contact. Business networking is an essential exercise in building your business or even looking for a job. Use existing networks and take advantage of every opportunity to pitch your service or your skills.

I’ve become a passionate advocate for improving the networking and Virtual Professional opportunities for trailing spouses. My web site aims to facilitate better discussion, networking, and solving some of the problems for individuals and the overall community. Visit www.ausmerica.com for more information.

Jeff Porter is a "foreign-born trailing spouse."

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