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Navigating Employment Challenges in a Global Lifestyle: Practical Advice for Family Members from Regional Global Employment Advisor Laura Sheehan

Laura Sheehan currently serves on contract to the U.S. Department of State’s Family Liaison Office as the Regional Global Employment Advisor in Hanoi. She has a portfolio that consists of more than a dozen posts in ten countries in East Asia Pacific with a collective client pool of nearly 900 Eligible Family Members. A 15-year Foreign Service spouse veteran serving in six overseas posts, she has worked inside and outside the mission, started her own business, volunteered, and started a family. Laura consults with family members, coaches clients on writing resumes and building interview skills, helps people launch their own businesses and has written a series of employment articles—to name just a few of her many duties. She consistently receives rave reviews from her clients for going above and beyond her job description.

Laura was recently a top nominee for AAFSW’s 2017 Champions of Career Enhancement for Eligible Family Members Award. Her background and expertise were so impressive that AAFSW asked her for an interview to share her suggestions and job-seeking advice for family members. Here is what she had to say.

Q. This is a challenging time to find employment as a family member – especially with the hiring freeze. Under these circumstances, do you have any suggestions on how to get started with a job hunt? What can family members do? Where should we look?

I’d say that it is always a challenging time to find employment as a family member. Yes, the hiring freeze has thrown in an added twist, but there have never been enough in-Embassy positions in any post to either fully employ every EFM who would like to work. The bottom line is that we all move frequently, our employment is never guaranteed and, in those locations where we do not have a formal work agreement with the host nation, we have limited (or no) employment opportunities on the local economy. On their own, each factor is tough to swallow . . . and when combined, can feel as though they are choking out any possibility for professional development.

The first step in any job hunt is to gather information about your new location. It is critical that we EFMs do our research before putting together a bid list with our FSO spouses. We need to know how many jobs are open inside the Embassy, which (if any) of those jobs will be opening up during our tour, whether there is a bilateral or de facto work agreement with the host nation, and what volunteering opportunities are available. Armed with this information, we have a clearer picture of our employment options and can then make an educated decision about whether we are able and willing to move to any given location.

Where do we find this information? Through the FAMERs for each post (available on the Intranet), by emailing the CLOs and GEAs for each prospective. There is also a TON of great information on the FLO website located at https://www.state.gov/m/dghr/flo/c1959.htm

If employment on the local economy is an option, then the CLO and GEA are great resources for determining the best ways to connect with the companies and/or industries that best fit your skill set(s). Of course, there are innumerable job boards out there and I recommend you use those to get a feel for what options are . . . but as 85% of jobs are filled through personal connections, start with the people at post who can help you most . . . your CLO and GEA!

Q. What are some of the mistakes people make when looking for a job?

I think that as a group, we collectively make the mistake of focusing on the demoralizing limitations rather than the amazing possibilities of a job search. We think about all of the “what ifs” and “could have beens” of a more stable life and career trajectory in the United States and we get sad and angry about all of our perceived professional losses when we move overseas. We keep trying to doggedly pursue the career trajectory that we had set for ourselves when we had a more stable and predictable life in the States.

I readily admit that I have made this mistake. Only recently have I been able to let go of the original vision I had for my career…an unfulfilled vision that I have been carrying with me over the last 20 years and 6 overseas postings. Oh, how depressed I was to think of what I could have been and how I failed to achieve the professional objectives I had set for myself in my college and grad school years. I kept searching for ways to fulfill that vision and was so frustrated when I kept coming up empty handed. But when I was (finally) able let go of that outdated vision for myself, I was then able to really see how much I had accomplished and how I could move forward in new and much more positive ways.

Through a lot of self-reflection and hundreds of conversations with my fellow EFMs enduring the same struggles, I have come to understand and embrace that the key to succeeding in any job search in any post is to view the set of parameters in which you are operating not as confining or restrictive, but as a new platform upon which we have the opportunity to either apply our existing skills in new ways or experiment in new professional arenas.

I now encourage my fellow EFMs to try to let go of those “what ifs” and “could have beens,” so that they too can start to see all of the incredible opportunities surrounding them in the now.

Q. As family members, we move frequently – and our resumes show it. Moving around every two years is sometimes a red flag for employers. Do you have any advice about this?

Yes, I do! On this front, I think we are our own worst enemies. If we treat our resumes as hodgepodge accounts of a nomadic life, then they will be received as such. If, however, we view our overseas experiences as incredibly diverse and fantastically fungible, then we can utilize our resumes to showcase the colorful portfolio that we have created through every move we have made. Our resumes are not ugly patchworks . . . they are career collages where each small piece contributes to a larger, beautiful whole!

We need to truly believe that our experiences have been amazing, though, so that we can convince a prospective employer of the same. We can (and should) actively market ourselves as experts in international (and diplomatic!) relations, cross-cultural communications, problem solving, resource allocation, and overall resilience…and more! An employer can throw any one of us into almost any situation anywhere in the world, and we can navigate our way through it. Who wouldn’t want to hire a person with those skills, right?! We are AWESOME!

How does an EFM accomplish this shift in resume perspective? The best way I have found to do so is to find common threads that run throughout your professional life and to use those threads to tie your overseas experiences together and relate those experiences to the job to which you are applying in both an engaging cover letter and in a “Summary of Qualifications” header on your resume.

Q. Can you talk a little about interviewing? Are there things that can be done in an interview to increase the chances of getting hired?

Of course! Here is a quick (but very general) formula that I recommend for interview success:

Research. At a minimum, do some digging on: (1) what qualities they value in an ideal candidate (found in the required qualifications section of the vacancy announcement); and (2) the main issues your prospective employer and/or office is facing right now (talk to your prospective office mates and/or others in the company!).This shows both that you are qualified to do the job and that you are interested in both general industry trends and current issues facing this particular company.

Prepare. Draft answers (literally) to the top questions you are most likely to be asked in the interview. You can make an educated guess about some of the questions you are likely to be asked by looking at the vacancy announcement and honing in on the skills required of a qualified candidate. Be ready to both answer each question and provide a relevant example by following the CCAR (Circumstances, Challenge, Action, Result) or STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) method of storytelling. Going through this process will keep the answers fresh in your mind, which will help you overcome any interview-day jitters. Be sure, too, to draft a list of questions YOU want to ask! Asking questions shows the interviewer(s) that you are fully engaged and that you are trying to determine whether this is a good fit for you as well.

Be Present. Get a good night’s sleep the night before. Come dressed for success. Arrive early (about 15 minutes). Try your best to relax. (Power poses! Affirmation and/or breathing exercises!) Go into the interview and do your best! Remember to make direct eye contact with and provide a firm handshake to every interviewer. Be aware of your posture (sit up straight!) and try your best not to fidget. It is okay to take notes – in fact it is GREAT to take notes! This will help you keep your thoughts straight and your answers clear and concise.

Follow Up! Candidates are up to 30% more likely to land the job if the follow-up with a thank you note within 24 hours of the interview. Why? This is an opportunity to reinforce your genuine interest in the position and underscores your ability to follow up.

When it comes to those daunting questions posed by U.S.-based private sector employers such as: “How long do you expect to be with us?” or “Where do you see yourself in five years?”, the key is to answer and then immediately redirect. I honestly answer by saying, “I expect to be in the U.S. (or whatever location) for at least two years. In that time, I know that I can meet and exceed all of your programmatic goals.” Then I quickly redirect to my unique qualifications and the amazing value added that I can bring to the position.

Q. What’s your best advice on how to find a job? Any tips for job seekers?

There are three main qualities I have observed in the successful job seeker. These individuals are: (1) open to new employment possibilities; (2) willing to talk to people . . . a lot of people; and (3) patient.

Open to new possibilities. Being overseas gives us the amazing opportunity to take a chance and try something new! When we land in a new place, we should try being committed to utilizing a set of skills rather than finding a job with a particular title. This allows us to expand the number of ways we can apply our skills and talents in our current environment. For example, if I were to arrive in a new place and set out seeking a job that would allow me to write persuasive papers, research interesting subjects, and advocate for a cause in which I believe, my employment options are wide and varied! If, however, I am wed to the idea of finding a job as a “lawyer,” the world of possibilities suddenly narrows. To have truly portable careers, we must ask ourselves: “What are the key skills I’d like to continue to use? Are there skills I would like to further develop?”

To test out whether you really like a new job or organization, you may want to consider volunteering. Yes, I have heard and understand the position that we should all strive to be paid at a level that is commensurate to the value we bring to an organization. I agree. Of course, I would rather get paid than not. But when asked: “How do I break into a new field?” or “What is the best way to get my foot back in the door after a long break?” I offer that volunteering provides a fantastic low (or no) risk, high yield opportunity to grow. Volunteering allows you to both experiment with new professional roles and refresh or re-establish your level of experience in areas where you feel your resume is weak and allows you to maintaining complete control over the terms of your commitment. True, volunteering does not come with a paycheck, but it could prove to be a sound investment in your long-term employment potential.

Are there other options? Of course! Think: Continuing education, paid internships, use of the Professional Development Fellowship (PDF) funding offered through the FLO. The list is long and varied. Regardless of the mechanism you prefer to pursue, start with the core set of skills you want to develop or utilize. Try not to limit yourself to a specific title; rather, broaden your horizons by seeking opportunities — paid or volunteer — that require the use of those core skills. Doing something is always better than doing nothing and in trying something new, we gain further clarity into how we can best apply our talents and interests in this endless world of job possibilities.

Talk to people. A whopping 85% of jobs are filled via personal referral — not through online job boards and the email application process. This means that it is essential that we build and utilize our personal and professional networks when we are actively looking for a job. We need not think of “networking” as going out to meet strangers with the nebulous hope that someone, somewhere might have a connection that you could leverage. NO! We should look within our extended network and start gathering information on not just anyone, but the specific people who are employed in an interesting industry or who hold positions that utilize our core skills or competencies. Basically, we need to identify the people that have a job that we’d like to have.

Then, we need to reach out to those people and ask them specifically: “What did you do to get where you are now?” Follow this question with another great one: “Is there anyone else I should talk to in order to learn more about this industry?” The thing is, people love to talk about themselves. We must use this to our advantage!

How does talking to people lead to a job? Well, by talking to people about their jobs, we are expressing a genuine interest in being a part of that profession. Each conversation we have is like a seed sown in an employment field. The more seeds sown, the more likely one (or more) will take root and be cultivated into a job offer.

Be patient. Though it can be very unnerving to move to a new place without a job offer in hand, I think it is critical that we look before we leap. The first opportunity that comes along might not be the best one (unless, of course, you need the income to support your family needs…then by all means jump on the first job that comes along!). If you are open to new possibilities, experiment with the skills you can offer to your new community, and take the time to meet (and talk to) people in jobs or companies that interest you, your efforts will (eventually) be rewarded.

Q. Do you have any other advice or recommendations that you would like to share?

There are two great quotes that together encapsulate the greatest lessons I have learned over the course of my EFM “career.” I hope these words will provide some degree of hope and inspiration to my fellow EFMs in their job searches.

“You are not a product of your circumstances. You are a product of your decisions.” (Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) “Incredible change happens in your life when you decide to take control of what you do have power over instead of craving control over what you don’t.” (Steve Maraboli, empowering speaker)

Melissa Hess
AAFSW 1st Vice President