Why You Should Not Work Abroad

Posted on 10. May, 2014 by in colombia, peru

I was unusually bothered by this Mark Manson article, Why Young Americans Should Work Overseas. It’s unusual because I chose to work abroad for the similar belief that emerging markets are a great opportunity.

Emerging markets are an excellent investment of blood, sweat, tears, and offspring in the long term. But Manson’s depiction of it is all wrong. So in response to Manson’s reasons to work abroad, these are my reasons NOT to work abroad.

Reason #1 – Your market value is NOT higher elsewhere

Manson says:

In the US, there are simply no longer enough quality jobs for everyone with a university education …

Is he only talking about college grads? If you didn’t attend university you can stop right here, because he’s not talking to you. And your market value is certainly not higher in Latin America. Mechanics, pipefitters, electricians, welders, landscapers, carpenters, restaurant workers, firefighters, machinists, letter carriers – your market value is definitely NOT higher in emerging markets. In fact, most of those are close to minimum wage, which in Latin America means washing your laundry by hand and eating meat only on weekends.

Meanwhile, you have massive emerging economies in Asia and South America that are desperate for college grads and especially for western-educated college grads.

It’s simple supply and demand. There aren’t enough jobs in the US and Europe anymore for young people. There aren’t enough highly educated people in emerging countries. Put two and two together, and your market value is much higher elsewhere.

In fact, western-educated employees are valued so highly in many parts of the world, that companies will deck you out, covering everything from your expenses, housing, transportation, as well as benefits, just to get you to come over.

After finishing school and still drunk off the World-is-Flat kind of journalist thinking that fuels Manson’s analysis, I searched for a corporate gig anywhere in Latin America (I even applied to a job in Venezuela). Despite significant corporate experience, I learned that companies are definitely NOT desperate to hire Western-educated gringos.

From my experience of five years in Peru and Colombia, only a tiny number of gringo expats are getting “decked out” by multinational or local companies. Those few expats had skills that are very rare in the Latin America: IT, computer programming, and the most difficult of engineering fields. If you don’t have a highly technical background in the land of siesta and fiesta, it’s a burden to hire someone who doesn’t speak the language and would need a visa sponsorship.

So you’re a Communications/Marketing/Branding charlatan who can speak English and manage Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube? Your Latin American market value is $45 per nine-hour workday. If somebody hires you. That’s how it is in Latin America.

I doubt they pay top dollar for engineers and computer programmers in Asia, which is not known for siesta and fiesta, but nerds. Any given market pays top dollar for what they don’t produce well at home AND what it’s not easy to import. That’s why English teachers can make six figures in Saudi Arabia, where your wildest party will be tea with the guys from class.

To nail home why your market value is NOT higher abroad, consider the common phenomenon in every expat community in Latin America. Guys and girls grudgingly say goodbye to their expat pals when they go back to the United States because they have to EARN DOLLARS.

Usually this happens when they have a family to support, which happened to me after knocking up my Peruvian wife. It’s inevitable for almost all expats who start families. They go home to make decent money. If your market value were higher abroad, suffering dollar-earning sabbaticals would never happen, and I wouldn’t be typing this from St. Louis.

Reason #2 – The quality-of-life/cost-of-living ratio is NOT higher elsewhere

Manson’s second argument is “the quality-of-life/cost-of-living ratio is now much higher elsewhere.” The obvious assumption in that argument is that your earnings are the same. And to go back to the point I just made, you are not going to make more money abroad in absolute terms. In fact, you are going to make less money in absolute terms.

Your cost of living will certainly fall, but if your earnings also fall, you haven’t necessarily improved your quality of life. “Quality of life” depends on what you value. If you want $5 grams of cocaine and a whorehouse in every neighborhood, your quality of life will improve in Colombia despite halving or even quartering your income.

If “quality of life” is determined by the lifestyle your money buys irrespective of what deviant behavior is allowed in your new country, you will still need to be a top-tier earner in your target society. And doing that on local salaries is extremely difficult. Otherwise the expat communities would be much bigger than they are.

A quick glance at Mark Manson’s site leads me to believe (and I may be wrong) that he makes his living selling dating advice to gringos for US dollars. His income in absolute terms is the same no matter where he lives, so obviously his quality of life will rise as you can buy more shit in a country with huge populations of destitute people.

If your income is location-independent, then obviously your quality of life/cost-of-living ratio is better in a developing country. But is location-independent employment really “working abroad?” Manson is physically “abroad,” but what part of selling dating advice to gringos for dollars is “abroad?” The market, the currency, the supplier, the legal environment, the language – there is no international component anywhere in the business.

I have worked for both Peruvian and Colombian companies, I have marketed products to Peruvian and Colombian consumers, I have worked in Spanish, and I have worked for the glorious Nuevo Sol and Colombian Peso. Take it from me – it is a GRIND. It is an excellent experience, and I certainly recommend working abroad from a development standpoint. But it is not the quality-of-life/cost-of-living scenario Manson portrays. It’s going to be amazingly difficult both before and after you ask yourself if you made a huge mistake.

After five years of trying different businesses, I still haven’t had even moderate success with Latin consumers. My best-paying business markets Peruvian products manufactured by a Peruvian company, but my customers are gringos paying U.S. dollars. I would never write a ridiculous article biting the hand that feeds me because Latin American markets have never provided better than Uncle Sam. I know who butters my bread.

The vast majority of gringo expats truly working abroad – marketing to Latin American consumers in Latin American currency – are selling English classes. And they make $1000 per month. Of the few gringos who make good salaries abroad, most are embassy/politico employees or corporate warriors who bring huge experience in their respective industries. To the few gringos launching their own businesses aimed at local markets in local currency, my hat truly goes off to them (to the ones making impressive money, not the ones teaching English with a sabbatical coming soon).

Here’s more Manson on Reason #2

When I started traveling the world in 2009, almost every place I went to blew my expectations away. I expected to show up to a dirt heap and get my kidneys carved out, and what I got was an amazing quality of life for my money.

Similarly, when my girlfriend, who is Brazilian, began traveling around the world a few years ago, she had the exact opposite reaction: every place she went was not nearly as nice as she expected. Why? She grew up in Brazil and assumed that the US and Europe were technological and social paradises, light years ahead of her native country. She was wrong. Over and over again, wrong, wrong, wrong.

The “technological paradise” and “light years ahead” comments are worth an article by itself, because going back and forth between the U.S. and South America is like travelling through time. But that will be another article.

Reason #3 – The Jobs Aren’t Coming Back, but that probably doesn’t affect you

I actually can’t argue with Manson’s point that “The Jobs Aren’t Coming Back.” I agree that many low-wage, manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back, and employment will not return to be as it was understood in the 20th century.

But those who don’t/won’t have jobs will be the most unemployable of the country. Have you been to your local Social Services office to request unemployment benefits? If you have, then you have a good idea of what “unemployable” is, and you realize that you’re not unemployable. If you’re willing and able to work, you’ll always find work as I did immediately upon returning.

Reason #4 – It’s time for America to focus on the homefront

Whether or not I agree with Manson that “It’s time for everyone to grow up and become global citizens,” you probably don’t. According to the statistics, you probably agree that it’s time for the United States to focus on its own problems. According to the Pew Research Center, most Americans want to mind their own business these days, which is obvious considering how things went in Iraq and Afghanistan. But how do you feel? Is it time to be a “global citizen?” Or is it time to focus on the domestic front?

Who Should Go Abroad?

If your income is location-independent – eLance all-stars, ‘webpreneurs’, retirees, and pensioners – definitely go live wherever it’s cheap and fun. Because thanks to the internet and ATMs that spit out local currency from your domestic bank account, you can live abroad without having to work abroad.

You only want to do a year. It’s not such a grind if it only lasts a year. You can say you lived in your preferred emerging market for a year and that you have “international experience.” Then you can get a job back home where you might make a comfortable living.

If you’re willing to suffer the trials and tribulations of working abroad, if you’re willing to sacrifice a better income back home, if you’re willing to suffer the intricacies of the consumer market of your destination, the legal environment, the management style, the mañana culture. If you’re willing to SUFFER to gain expertise in your chosen market, by all means the most urgent thing you need to do is get down there and work.

The State of Emerging Markets

I still believe in my career strategy of emerging markets. But after five years of immersion, I’m more realistic about it. It wasn’t just that 60% of the world lived under some form of socialism or protectionism – these countries are poor for a reason. They have fundamental weaknesses. In Latin America, there is a mind-blowing inefficiency. It’s part of the charm. Inefficient government and industry. Disturbingly unequal societies. Corruption. Weak legal environments. Political risk. Street crime and narcoterrorism.

Different emerging markets have different problems. China and Russia don’t lack the engineers and computer programmers, but they haven’t embraced democracy and political pluralism as well as Latin America.

Emerging markets were the rage after the Global Financial Crisis because Western governments dumped huge amounts of money into their domestic economies. With effective interest rates at zero, private investors had nowhere to go for a decent return. So there was a wave of investment in the emerging markets of Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Asia. But as Western economies recover and opportunities for safe returns come back home, the money also comes back home. The boom is probably over, which is why the foreign currencies and housing markets are feeling pressure after years of growth.

Emerging markets are still a great career move, since globalization and neoliberalism have largely won the day. These societies have a lot of catching up to do and you can capitalize on that. But it’s not easy. It’s not the picture Manson painted. It’s a grind. Your payday is not next week, nor next year.

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19 Responses to “Why You Should Not Work Abroad”

  1. Rubio

    10. May, 2014

    I think there’s a whole nother angle that you’re not addressing here….

    Most Americans don’t really realize how deficient their qualifications really are in the grand scheme of things, on the world market.

    Immigrants come to the US all the time, overqualified, and end up working for less than what a citizen would get because of the nature of the immigration process. Many of them would be WORTH what a citizen would get paid.

    But the sad truth is that people trained in the US are just not really all that skilled at what they do, and they go to another country where the competition is really ON… they don’t do as well as they think they should….

    You know I’ve survived and thrived as a musician here in Colombia, for going on six years now. I’m been able to make it work for many reasons, but the big reason is simply IM AT THE TOP OF MY GAME.

    And the fact that my Spanish was already fluent before I even set foot here doesn’t hurt either! It’s more than a bit arrogant to think you can just waltz into any country WITHOUT EVEN SPEAKING THE LANGUAGE and expect to land a professional level position.

    And yes, nepotism and cronyism are alive and well here, as they are anywhere else. But I’ve seen it time and time again, no matter who your connections are, in this city (Bogota) if you aren’t competent, if you can’t cut it you are GONE GONE GONE!

    So I would say there is tons of opportunity here, but you have to be really really good at what you do. This is not a place to come and slack off, unless of course we are back to if you have outside money!

  2. Esteban H

    10. May, 2014

    “Emerging” is poor descriptive term for these countries. None of them will ever become 1st world. The gap is just too big. The developed economies, i.e., USA, Western Europe, Japan, Korea, Australia will always stay ahead. The best these emerging economies will do is develop striving commodities markets. They will always lag in technology and medicine.

    The USA and Europe are about to fall off a giant demographic cliff with the retirement of the Baby Boom generation. As baby boomers move into retirement, they spend less and less. The economy is in for a big recession/crash that will last until approximately 2024 when the echo boom generation moves in to fill the gap. When the big downturn occurs and the massive debt and entitlement bubbles burst, the rest of the world will go into the shitter.

    Its gonna be bad, really bad.

  3. Ajiaco

    11. May, 2014

    Mark Manson also discounts the value of relationships in getting ahead. So you’re a gringo who just arrived to Third-World Country X, but you don’t know anyone. Who will vouch for you? Relationships here in Colombia are cultivated through your family, through school, through all sorts of other things that have nothing to do with “skills”. Skills in isolation, unless they are the best in the biz, mean nothing without all the other factors and intangibles that get people hired.

    After 6 years in Colombia I am doing pretty well, but I would still probably be doing much better, especially in terms of disposable income, if I stayed in the US. But then again, part of my reason for fleeing in the first place was trying to avoid using money to judge happiness. I agree that Manson is selling developing countries as some kind of rigged game where gringos can’t fail, and it’s not that at all. Those illusions will get shattered fast.

  4. Chris

    13. May, 2014

    Excellent article, I couldn’t agree more.

    If you don’t have rare skills then you aren’t going to be able to earn a good wage abroad. Most english teachers burn out after a short period of time.

  5. Dan

    13. May, 2014

    @Rubio

    I would have to vehemently disagree with your statement in terms of competence in the Colombian workplace. I had my first taste of the Colombian office culture and I must say, ineptness, apathy, and inefficiency are the norm.

    As a matter of fact, most of these companies hire many of their employees based on personal facts and relationships, rather than solid credentials. I remember during my job interviews (I had about 4), they asked me personal questions that were totally unrelated to the job I would be doing.

    Bottom line is that ignorance and ineptness are rife within the Colombian workforce. Yes, there are a few companies that expect their employees to perform at a certain level, but that is an exception. Seriously, how can you say that people in the US aren’t good at what they do, but half the workforce in Colombia are not familiar with the basic facets of their jobs. Have you ever tried to get something done? Dealt with any kind of bureaucracy? Nobody knows nothing.

    I have enjoyed my time here in Colombia, but a major thorn in my side is the sheer incompetence found at all levels of business. Seriously, my friend banks with BBVA and had to transfer some money out of the country. He spent 3 hours inside the bank because nobody working there knew how to fill out the forms properly. They had to call the central bank 25 times before the only person that knew what they were doing answered the phones.

    The Colombian workplace operates in a top down structure. One head honcho makes all of the decisions, while all of the other minions remained undertrained, inept,and impotent in terms of decision making. When I started work with my company, I actually had to stop working at a higher level. Mainly because nobody else seemed to be accomplishing anything of merit. The workforce in Colombia is like a microcosm for Latin America, lots of things going on, but nothing really being accomplished.

  6. English Teacher X

    01. Jun, 2014

    Excellent points that most of these “happier abroad” sites are happy to ignore. But hey, like he said, all you lazy liberal arts majors who want cheap beer and drugs? English teaching is waiting for you!

  7. Erin D

    01. Jun, 2014

    I think the points in this article are pretty much what I have discovered in a year and a half in Pereira. Colombia is definitely one of the better places to be in terms of cost and disposable income. However to truly “make it” you have to have a pretty unique skill set or business idea. I agree with the gentleman here who made the comment about inept workers, you have to be so organized that you beat them at their own game. You have to “be more Paisa than the Paisas.” It’s not for everyone.

  8. PG

    02. Jun, 2014

    Great article Colin, interesting perspective as ever. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Rubito

    07. Jun, 2014

    I think that everything that you say about the Colombians also applies to Americans, but having said that both Colombians and Americans are productive compared to most of the rest of the planet! Ever tried dealing with the English, Argentinians, Spanish? WHEW!

    I haven’t really had any problems in Colombia with bureaucracy nor with ineptness at an official level. The worst thing that happened to me was one time I called Davivienda customer service at 2:30am and my man was ASLEEP at the other end. But that was only one time, and I regularly call them between midnight and 5am. 😛 As a matter of fact Davivienda are very impressive with their customer service compared to other banks I’ve dealt with. Ditto for my EPS (Coomeva).

  10. Milly Day

    11. Jun, 2014

    Should have read this a year ago before starting my job in Buenos Aires… having said that, I’ve loved (almost) every minute, though I definitely feel poorer now! Especially as literally EVERYTHING has gone up, bar my salary- when I began working here, the pathetic breakfast that I buy from my kiosco every morning (juice and a ridiculously sweet cereal bar) cost me AR$8. It now costs $15. So fucked up.

  11. Grégoire

    11. Jun, 2014

    The key is to have your own business you can move down to South America and continue to make your money in dollars. That’s my situation and my lifestyle is much better in Peru than in the US…

  12. Ty

    26. Jun, 2014

    Thank you Colin. Excellent article and in line with my experiences as someone living here, albeit for a short time. Based on my experience and those of my grad school friends who are Colombian raised (and went back to their family businesses), I would say that Colombia is not in much need of Americans or other western educated folks as you might think. Of course if you want to teach English or have a location independent job (as you noted), then you are fine. However, if you are middle, or upper middle class with no personal connections in Colombia you will get no where and your income will take a hit that cannot be made up for in the lowered cost of living. I’m a consultant and ideally I would work 6mths at a US salary and then 6 mths in Medellin (or other Latin location) per year. That’s my hope until I retire anyway!
    Again, great article, appreciate your perspective!
    -Ty

  13. Dennis

    26. Jun, 2014

    This is excellent – might be your best post. I can totally see this as an article on Fast Company or other sites.

  14. Chris

    01. Jul, 2014

    Pretty good article for the most part but you pretty much ripped on teaching English abroad saying that you make only 1,000 dollars a month. What about teachers who have Masters degrees in Education and teach at the real international schools. This is a great job in South America and other places. I make over 30,000 a year in Colombia and had free housing, insurance, plane tickets, visa costs, baggage allowance, and many other benefits. The free housing alone is an extra 10,000 a year. So, I disagree with the article in that teaching can be very lucrative..even in South America. One girl I know saved 20,000 us dollars alone last year…living in Brazil. Many of my friends in Bogota make 50-60 a year and have housing on top of that.

    I make 30,000 in Colombia and live like a king. The average Colombian doctor barely makes that much. So teaching is actually probably the best move in my opinion. not all the bullshit either because you are working for Americans as your boss, plus you immediately connect to the top people in that given city and business opportunities arise from that…I was offered jobs a couple of times to work with rich people in their international divisions.

    ESL teaching of course is a whole other beast and a waste of time that pays peanuts.

  15. Colin

    10. Jul, 2014

    Here is a great podcast on some of the nuances for gringos trying to do business in Latin America: http://www.foodstartupspodcast.com/episode-27-5-gamechangers-latin-american-business/

  16. Luis

    25. Jul, 2014

    I was in Peru for 18 months and I can say that this article hit so many great points on so many levels.

    Firstly, I want to point out that I do not have a liberal arts or teaching background. That needs to be addressed because to me its clear that this article is not meant to address people with a liberal arts background who decide to up and move to South America for a better quality of life, or at least something different than what can be offered in USA.

    Second, quality of life is obviously subjective. However, whenever speaking about topics such as living abroad or succeeding in a different culture we are forced to speak in generalities. And I think we can safely say that MOST people for quality of life value in no particular order financial security, safety, education, health care, availability of basic services, and potentially most important family.

    Now, after my time in Peru I can confidently say that family is crucial to overall happiness of its citizens. Due to the fact that in many ways the country is backwards and illegitimate in its practices, Peruvians depend on family in order to get their way through the day to day grind that we call life. This of course is on top of the sentimental and emotional dependency that comes natural to families all over the world. The reason I mention this point is that for many people, especially in these so called developing countries, FAMILY is straight and foremost number one consideration for quality of life, it is prioritized over everything else. I think the degree of this dependency comes somewhat as a shock to USA and other Western Country expats who in general are much more independent in overcoming life’s obstacles.

    So with these points I mentioned above, I whole heartedly agree with the author’s assessment that Western Expats DO NOT have more value in Latin America just because they have a college education and they speak english. More importantly Western Expats WILL NOT have a better quality of life just because cost of living is lower. Of course there are exceptions.
    An expat who loves to teach, to dance, latin food, and embraces the latin family of their partner will have a much higher quality life in Peru than they would in USA. But if an educated expat is looking to further their university skill set in medicine, engineering, business, law, manufacturing, marketing and countless other industries…countries like Peru or Colombia is NOT the answer to furthering their career and quality of life.

    That expectation would be further shut down when they realize that the many facets of daily life that they take for granted in their Western country of origin such as legal matters, efficiency, security, development, and education are decades behind in Latin America. Countries like these simply do not have the resources to ever catch up in terms of these levels of development. Latin developing countries will continue to advance at record rates for some years to come, however it is not sustainable and platueus will be reached and have already been met in certain areas.

    I realized quickly that I could not be happy with a career in Peru. Sure, I could have killed myself trying to get a project management job that made me half as much as I would in the USA. However, the quality of life factors that I mentioned above would not be half the quality of what I can find in the USA. I would say they would be a fourth and fifth of the quality. The disparity is just too large and I feel that most professional expats who are not location independent realize this quickly.

    What made my situation more difficult is that I met my Peruvian girlfriend, now fiancé, in Lima during my first couple of months in Peru. Being in love I quickly tried to alter my plans and establish myself a new life in Peru. The effort mentally and physically to try to immerse myself in the culture and position myself in the Peruvian middle class with hopes of moving up proved to be extremely draining on my relationship and me personally. The ideas for a good quality of life clearly clashed between my partner and I for the reasons I mentioned above. I often found in myself in situation where my girlfriend would say she didn’t care how much better or efficient the USA was, being close to her family is just more important. The only thing I can do is just respect that feeling of hers. So quality of life is subjective, but my idea for a better life did not depend on being close to my girlfriend’s family. So ultimately my girlfriend knew that returning to USA was necessary for us to do in order to achieve a happier and more comfortable lifestyle. That’s why I returned to California last month, secured a construction management job within 2 weeks after over 1 year of unemployment, and my fiancé is moving here at the beginning of 2015.

    So great article and I think its a must read for any person thinking to actually pursue career opportunities in foreign developing counties. Its one thing to be sent there by a large international corporation or government agency…its entirely different to go there as individual (no matter how qualified) in search of a better life.

  17. Alice

    02. Oct, 2014

    When I first read the title – I was thinking what a bad title! But I couldn’t agree more with you with some of your points. Also I have to agree with @Rubio…education standards are different across the world, where the education can provide much more stability to ones qualifications. However, I can’t agree with @Esteban.H as you mention developed countries? There are a number of DEVELOPING countries at present who will be the gold wagons of the earth in the next 20 years.

  18. Martin

    26. Feb, 2015

    Excellent article Colin. I am from Canada. I have been in Bogota since more than a year and I agree with you. You have to be well prepared, with realitists expectations and be patient. For me I see it as a long term life project.
    Thank you for great writings, I love them!

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