Telecommuting While Overseas: A Proposal

On our first overseas tour it only took six months for me to receive my security clearance and begin working as an Eligible Family Member. I was lucky. Yes, it’s true that verifying fingerprints for visa applicants, a task I was able to pick up in about fifteen minutes required a bit less skill than my previous job as CEO of Speakeasy Theaters in California. But it was an improvement over sitting in my apartment and staring out the window. I had a purpose. I wasn’t integral to Embassy operations, but I was essential.

At least, that’s what I thought until the day I came to work and was informed that my position was no longer required. “What?” I thought. How could the consulate continue without me directing people to place their four fingers on the green screen? And more importantly what the heck was I going to do now? I asked. My supervisors pondered this question as if the thought of what I would be doing had never occurred to them, which of course it hadn’t. They looked at each other and then at me and then at each other again and proceeded to brainstorm with me about what I might do with myself. In fairness, my supervisors have been generous allowing me to find ways to make myself useful and I’ve developed some interesting projects.

Every EFM I know has an “amusing” story like this to share. After all, it’s not the primary or even secondary objective of the Foreign Service to manufacture satisfying careers for partners and spouses of Foreign Service Officers (FSOs). The State Department has made an effort to give EFMs something to do while at post in order to prevent a full scale revolt by FSOs but this is often not enough. The Department needs to step up and provide the means for EFMs to use their considerable skills and talents to map career paths that can coexist with their FSO partners.

The Department offers EFMs jobs rather than true careers. Tasks performed by EFMs are designed to be “one-offs.” They are not designed to develop into a career from post to post. Verifying fingerprints at my present post is not intended to groom me for a position as a master fingerprint verifier at a future post. Even the coveted Expanded Professional Associates Program (EPAP) jobs which are professional in design are post specific. There is a growing pool of ambitious EFMs will not be content with just having a job. They want a career. They need a pool of career opportunities as vast and diverse as that available to domestic job seekers and they need a way to remain connected to the domestic workplace.

Ideally EFMs can establish careers either by creating businesses or by otherwise being self-employed. Creating a business is a difficult and risky endeavor even in the United States. Financial resources must be expended in order to build the business and developing a clientele with no assurance of generating a return on the investment. Add to that the additional difficulty posed by being overseas and it is a more perilous path than most can endure.

Developing a career requires a continuity of purpose and effort which can prove challenging when you’re never in the same country for more than a few years. Unless your goal is to be the best English as a Second Language teacher ever each new country offers a unique bag of career opportunities. A good alternative to spreading the virtues of English fluency is to find a US employer who is open to allowing you to telecommute.

Unfortunately, very few EFMs have been able to transform their prior domestic employment into international telecommuting. There is little incentive for a domestic employer to retain a non-domestic employee when so many well suited candidates are available nationally and within the same area code. According to the Family Liaison Office, as of 2011 129 EFMs were able to work telecommuting from overseas.

The situation is even more challenging for EFMs who are overseas and trying to establish a telecommuting relationship with a domestic employer from scratch. As a former employer I can see absolutely no upside to hiring someone who is not physically present over someone who is on site unless the non-present applicant possesses a skill or value that the employer cannot obtain otherwise. In short, the only way an employer would consider a telecommuting EFM is if that EFM had added value.

In 2010 President Obama signed the Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment (HIRE) act. It was designed to encourage employers to hire the long term unemployed. New tax incentives for businesses to hire unemployed workers included:

  • payroll tax exemption of the employers share of Social Security taxes on wages paid to these workers after March 18, 2010.
  • employer tax credit of up to $1,000 per worker

The Treasury Department claimed that 4.5 million long term unemployed were hired in the months following the creation of the HIRE Act. It cannot be proved that all new hires resulted from the employers taking advantage of the HIRE Act but it must have helped some job seekers to get work.

EFM’s could similarly benefit from this kind of business incentive. Every employer looks for ways to improve the bottom line. If there is the potential to reduce employee costs employers will usually think more creatively and be more open to change. So a properly incentivized employer might reconfigure a position so that it accommodates a telecommuting employee. This incentive also makes an employer more willing to listen to a sales pitch from the EFM on the virtues of telecommuting. An EFM that is armed with a business tax incentive to add to her resume can level the playing field suddenly becoming more competitive with domestic applicants. This would remove some of the burden the State Department now carries to find jobs for EFMs.

There are certain jobs that don’t lend themselves to telecommuting. A construction worker, a trial attorney, or a police officer cannot telecommute. But EFMs interested in these fields might find work that supports these jobs, thereby gaining indirect experience. All this is up to the initiative and imagination of the EFM who will now have access to a nationwide marketplace offering a world of possibilities.
Not every EFM would take advantage of this incentive just as not every EFM chooses to work for the State Department at post. But it would be another tool available to the EFM to make overseas life more rewarding which ultimately makes it easier for the FSO to be productive.

It is a well-established fact that unhappy EFMs make for unhappy FSOs. That is why EFM jobs were created in the first place. For many Foreign Service families the availability of rewarding jobs is a guiding factor in determining bids. Having more ready access to telecommuting work could make certain posts that were once unattractive to bidders, much more viable.

Realistically, the implementation of an EFM hiring tax incentive would not in and of itself immediately open up a new world of telecommuting opportunities. EFMs would need to learn how to market themselves to employers as viable telecommuters and potential employers would need help to navigate the intricacies of employing telecommuters. Employers would need to be taught how to manage telecommuting employees. A framework needs to be established for communication and for marking production milestones so that the employer feels secure that money is being well spent. A support group within the State Department preferably staffed by EFMs could help smooth over the rough edges of developing a new employer/employee relationship and transitioning to a new reality. But the new reality could be a game changer for the Foreign Service.

After several professional careers and many accolades, Kyle Fischer has found his greatest job yet: being a father to his children.

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