Pack your IT skills and head for the sun

Working abroad seems tempting: more sun, better hours. But how practical is it? Sally Whittle says great opportunities exist for...

Working abroad seems tempting: more sun, better hours. But how practical is it? Sally Whittle says great opportunities exist for IT professionals, with a little help.

They say international experience can't hurt in most management jobs. Is that as true for IT?

Ask Uwe Natho an IT executive who has worked on both sides of the Atlantic, and he will say yes. As IT director at healthcare company Bupa, Natho had responsibility for overall IT strategy and 650 staff. It was a senior position, and one which Natho believes he achieved mainly thanks to his international background.

"I find European executives are very hierarchical," he says. "The North American management culture is far more focused on the customer. It is good to be able to see both sides."

Indeed, if you want to reach the dizzy heights at the top of the career ladder, international experience is becoming increasingly important, says Andrew Blades, a director with recruitment firm Anson McCade.

"International experience is extraordinarily important. There has always been a level of prestige to working in certain cities and it definitely gives candidates an edge," he says.

But the current wave of globalisation means businesses cannot simply install local managers with a guide book and a certificate in conversational French in a foreign office. They need highly skilled workers who understand the nuances of regional markets, and how to leverage those nuances to meet the company's global objectives.

Brits are best

If you are tempted by the idea of a year or two in warmer climes, the good news is that working in the UK gives you a head start. The UK, and particularly London, has a reputation for producing hard-working and highly skilled IT staff, Blades says, making them highly sought after.

This is particularly true in Japan, Singapore and Australia, where most programming is done in English and there is a massive local skills shortage.

Having experience in more than one European country can also make a candidate extremely attractive to US multinationals, who often cannot find US employees with the right skills.

"Technology is increasingly a global business with no borders, but not for Americans," comments Lisa Behlmann, a regional manager with recruitment firm Kornferry International.

"They are not familiar with setting up infrastructures to deal with multiple languages, or dealing with multiple taxation and legal systems - skills European workers are more likely to have."

There are no set rules about where UK workers can work, as most countries have defined policies on technology professionals. It definitely helps if you have a specialist skill that is in short supply in a particular region - whether that is wireless technology for India, or financial systems in Switzerland.

"It helps when you apply for a visa if your potential employer can identify the shortage of skills in the local market," says Blades.

Visas and taxes

However, getting a visa to work overseas is often the least problematic part of the process, notes Tim Legg, director of European sales with Elan recruitment. IT workers also need to navigate local legal and taxation issues which are often bewilderingly complex.

For example, the Netherlands has a special taxation rule for foreign workers whereby 30% of your salary is tax free for five years. Overstay, though, and you are liable for tax on the whole amount. Although UK citizens are entitled to work within the EU, most countries require new residents to register for a work permit before taking a job.

This means iti s vital to consult both an accountant and a solicitor before leaving these shores, to ensure you understand taxation issues in your new job and any liabilities for UK tax while you're away.

If a UK citizen is working overseas on a short-term contract, they may be liable for tax under double taxation rules for up to six months after leaving the UK, Legg warns. In addition, there may be other tax liabilities generated by rental income on a vacant house, he adds.

The first step in working overseas is to approach your own company to check for opportunities. A transfer to an international office could benefit both you and the company, allowing you to gain new skills, work in a different environment and take on new challenges.

However, if your employer is unable or unwilling to offer international opportunities, there are specialist headhunting firms, such as Elan, Kornferry and Anson McCade, which operate across dozens of countries.

A good agency should also be able to help you through the practical aspects of working overseas, such as finding a place to live and learning the local language. If you are working for a large corporation, this may also be handled by a specialist relocation agency, but smaller firms may not have the cash or the expertise to help new foreign workers.

"Your new employer might not have a clue how to shift furniture across the Atlantic, or which rental agents are the best," says Blades. "That is where the recruitment agency should be helping."

Whether short-term trip or long-term relocation, planning is the key to a happy move overseas

  • Book an extended holiday to your preferred destination and use it to visit the schools, real estate agents and leisure facilities.
  • Use a recruitment agency that has representation abroad.
  • Contact your local agency rep before you leave so you know at least one person when you arrive.
  • Do your homework on visas, work permits and whether you need to register in advance.
  • Ask your recruiter or relocation agency about accommodation, local schools, healthcare, setting up a bank account, and don't forget you will need to hire both a phone and a car.
  • Take advice from your solicitor on any legal issues regarding the contract with a new employer. For example, German contracts tend to specify longer notice periods than the UK.
  • Start learning the local language before you go - a few key phrases go a long way.
  • Embrace the local culture and get involved in social activities outside the office.
  • Consult an independent tax adviser to ensure you comply with local tax regulations and UK laws.
  • Maintain contact with old UK colleagues to prepare for the day you will come back.

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