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The “Eligible Family Member” Work Situation

By Caitlin Hartford – Feb 2012

First my disclaimer:

This is one couple’s experience at a very large post in a huge city wherein the EFM (husband in this case) is a novice at the local language. Everyone’s experience will be different depending upon their professional desires, work experience, competition from other EFMs or the local work environment, bilateral work agreements (or lack thereof) and – simply – luck and timing.

The other day, as I was extolling the virtues of it being a Friday, I noticed that my husband seemed depressed about the coming weekend. For me this meant two days of sleeping in and relaxing, but for him it meant two more days of waiting to hear back about some job opening. It meant another week had passed where he still hadn’t found a job. Monday was his day of hope and possibility, not Friday.

Bit of background: my husband has a considerable amount of useful work experience, from over a decade in education, to a handful of years in public health. These were what we considered “highly portable” skills when we first started talking about a Foreign Service life. He also speaks French and was in the Peace Corps. This was good stuff! Armed with confidence, he started applying for embassy jobs days after our Flag Day and was contacting potential local employers three and four months before his arrival.

So what happened? Even before arriving at post, we learned the first lesson: many local employers don’t want to hear about someone they haven’t already met or aren’t going to meet for many months. Those inquiries went exactly nowhere and his initiative and foresight went utterly unrewarded. Even after arriving at post, many calls and e-mails would still go unanswered, even for advertised positions. We honestly didn’t feel it was due to lack of appropriate experience, as he only contacted employers for jobs in which he was entirely qualified.

What about embassy jobs?

While at the Foreign Service Institute, I was told by a 20-year EFM veteran that my husband should be prepared to look for work at least six months at every new post. These words are ringing true today. We figured that a huge post like ours would have a correspondingly huge need. Frankly, I’m unable to compare the number of EFM openings we’ve come across to those at other posts because this is our only experience. However, it seems that when they do come along – which is not very often – they seem to come in three flavors:

  1. Language Required:
    I’ve gotten very good at scanning the job openings for the base qualifications and find myself checking the language requirements first. It seems that about 65% of the openings require a high level of Spanish, say a 4/4, which my husband does not possess. I don’t even bother reading any further on those openings; they get immediately deleted. (Conspiracy theory has it that the language requirements are so high for some of these positions because they’d really rather hire a local who will stick around for years rather than an EFM who will be gone in two years – but that is unsubstantiated.)
  2. The Uber-Qualified:
    These seem to be written with a specific person in mind. For example, they want five years of progressively responsible work in the field of international development, particularly in program management of research projects on white-footed field mice. These jobs come with a nice paycheck, but with firm stipulations that unless you can demonstrate these prerequisites, keep your day job, kid; your application won’t go any further.
  3. Free-for-All:
    Finally, there are the job openings for which nearly any somewhat educated and intelligent adult can apply. They have low requirements in terms of specialized skills, and therefore the entire EFM pool submits their resumes. These are jobs like Consular Assistant, Human Resources Assistant, Security Escort etc. These positions are coveted because they generally require a security clearance, and therefore offer a chance to obtain one. Which means that if you are new to the EFM gig, this is a great way to get your security clearance for The Next Post where you could be better set to get the sweet job you’ve been eyeing. People accept these Security Escort positions for good reasons: A) it’s a job and it pays an American wage, which often means double the local salary; B) you will start to earn towards federal retirement, sick leave, vacation, social security etc… and, C) you will earn your security clearance. Yes, it means you get to escort the housekeeping staff as they mop the hallways of the classified area, but that’s the dive you have to be willing to take.

What’s the downside of the former category?

These positions are deceptively difficult to obtain, leaving the highly experienced and smarter-than-the-average-bear spouse feeling like a total reject because they can’t even get a Security Escort job!

The EFM must also be prepared for the advertising, interviewing, hiring, and intake process to take months from the time a position is announced. The bureaucratic machine can easily eat four to six months of a 24-month tour, which makes the waste of precious time particularly aggravating.

Why are these jobs so difficult to get?
The interview process, as I understand it, is set up in a hierarchy wherein EFM applicants receive preference, but veteran EFMs receive even more preference (veteran as in former military, not simply experienced). They pretty much have to BOMB the interview in order for the hiring committee to have sufficient justification to consider other applicants further down the list. Mix in EFMs who have been around a post or two and have already done the job they’re applying for and you might as well just take up crocheting and trading penny stocks. Perfectly capable EFMs never get a chance to shine in an interview if a decent veteran EFM is among the applicants.

What about jobs on the local economy?
This will depend on whether or not there is a bilateral work agreement allowing such things to happen, either official or de facto. In some countries, work outside the mission is simply not an option. With over a decade of teaching experience, my husband contacted all the international schools in town to offer his services. One school was very impressed with him, and he with them, until it came time to negotiate some form of part-time salary with their HR department. There were so many areas where he could help out and he didn’t even have to work full-time, which was his preference. Their offer was three days per week for a three-figure salary per month. Yes, that’s right – three figures, and the first number was neither a nine, eight, seven, nor six. Basically he’d be working for cab fare and lunch money. Should he accept, he would be hired at the local wage: teachers here make about $42 per day.

We were warned about this and had read stories of spouses who complained of “earning pennies.” When I read each of these accounts, I thought, “Well that probably only applies to NYC lawyers who are used to earning $150K plus per year. We’re not like THAT! We’re not in it for the money!” I paraded my high-horse around my mental barn, dismissing these warnings cavalierly. Now I understand what they were talking about.

Which brings us to the next question to ponder: why does the EFM want to work?
Is it to further his/her career? To cover expenses from home, like a mortgage or college tuition or loans? To contribute to retirement savings? To occupy their time? To immerse themselves in the new country’s culture and meet local friends? Because each of these reasons will offer different a rationale for why taking a job for $500 per month is, or is not, acceptable.

What’s the answer?
Well, as a Foreign Service Officer, besides marrying a veteran with years of experience, a hobby to occupy them, a great sense of patience, fluency in five world languages and a nest-egg – all I can recommend is that you two really discuss what it’s going to look and feel like when hubby/honey is still at home after seven months of searching and hoping. Or a year, as was the case of a bilingual architect husband at post who was finally offered a job taking fingerprints in the Consular Section.

My EFM has chosen not to bank on the embassy jobs, but to concentrate on an independent skill that can be taken to post two and three and four. If an embassy position comes through, great, but in the meantime he’ll be more self-reliant.

Hey, remember this is just two people’s experience. Your EFM could end up hooking a great job before you even arrive at post, as was the experience of a friend in Moscow and his wife. I wish you good luck; I hope your experiences will be fulfilling and not frustrating — and I hope you and your veteran’s points stay away from me and my EFM.

(Totally kidding.)

(Sort of.)

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