Returning expat spouses face challenges re-entering the workplace

Mai Ensmann share the challenges she faced as a returning expat spouse and the steps she took to deal with them.

Getting back to work

After years of living abroad, we were finally being repatriated to our home country!  This is a day I had dreamed of: a return to familiar surroundings, family and old friends, and a return to work authorization.  I hadn’t been able to pursue paid work abroad because of visa regulations, and I was more than ready to make the leap and “go back to work.”

I had already lived and worked in 6 countries before I met my husband in a refugee camp in eastern Chad. We set off together to pursue our international careers and adventure. I eventually resigned from my job as the Executive Director of a child protection program in Malawi when I was 6 months pregnant, and we settled in Belgium, my husband’s home. A decade, 3 countries, 2 children, and many compromises later, I became an expat stay at home mom devoted to community work.  The past few years have been personally and professionally fulfilling due to my engagement in community work.  I helped my children thrive in their new environments, became certified to teach yoga and taught full classes, led a Girl Scouts troop, ran marathons, and worked as the Director of Humanitarian Projects for a women’s association supporting local Ghanaian NGOs.  Now with our move back to Belgium (where I do have work authorization) I realized I needed a strategy to highlight my international experience, learn new job search techniques and relaunch my career.

Read: Expatriate Assignment Failure – The Tip of the Iceberg 

Shift the thinking

As repatriating expat spouses planning a return to work, we have several challenges we need to address. First, we are relaunching our careers after several years out of the paid workforce.  This is a formidable challenge, even for those who have never left their hometown.  Then, we need to find compelling ways to use our international experience in our job search.  Many expat wives who have been stay at home moms for years may have low confidence in their skills and their ability to get back in the game.  We need to shift our thinking and not discount our experiences while abroad. An employer should hire you because of your international experience, not despite it.

Remember, over the years you have become an expert in managing transition, and reinventing yourself.  Many of the same strategies you used to successfully transition to a new country can be applied to a job search. So how did I go about starting? Before launching my job search I spent time evaluating my skills and interests, and I figured out what I really wanted to do, and not just what I could do.  Then, I prepared an action plan.  Below I have outlined the steps I took to prepare for my career re-launch.

Expatriate women expat

How returning expatriate women nail their job search

Key strategies for returning expat spouses

Do the research

Returning to work after an extended break is daunting for anyone, and there are many resources online which offer contradictory advice.  Two excellent sites I referenced are Women Returners  based in the UK, and iRelaunch  in the US. 3Plus also offer support to Returners.

Get your documents in order

I realized that much had changed since the last time I searched for a job. Today most recruiters are searching for candidates online, and I needed to update my online presence. This meant overhauling my LinkedIn profile, getting on Twitter, revising my resume (and cutting it down to 2 pages) and printing business cards.

Read: Do Expats need to Brexit 

Get connected

Creating a network is something fun which I found I excel at. Despite being an introvert, networking is a survival skill which I have developed over the years because of the necessity to make new friends and connections after multiple moves.  The same resourcefulness I used to connect with other women in my overseas posts I am now using to build my professional network at home.  The difference now, however, is I am being strategic in my approach.  I am targeting organizations working in my field, and approaching professionals online to request a meeting.

Get help

Working with a career coach helped me identify my skills and strengths, taught me new job search strategies and gave me a realistic picture of the local job market.  I recommend working with a coach with experience assisting returning workers and expat spouses.   There is also online group coaching available through 3Plus Returners Online Roll-Up in July and August, Women Returners and iRelaunch.

Read: 10 basic job seeker tips to revisit

Explore new opportunities

The typical expat spouse’s career will not follow a linear path. It might not be possible to find a full-time position immediately.  I’ve decided to upgrade my skills and am now following an online MicroMaster’s program on instructional design and technology on edX.  Besides taking courses or retraining, a relauncher could consider a short-term volunteering assignment, or a “returnship.” Similar to an internship, a returnship is a short-term employment contract for experienced professionals who have taken an extended career break.  Ideally the returnship would help the returner update their skills and experience, and help with the transition back to full-time paid work. Returnship opportunities are listed on the Women Returners and iRelaunch websites.

Remember, like any other transition, relaunching a career takes time and it may be a longer process than you had originally planned.  Take the time to do your research and seek out support. You’ve got this.

Are you a returner who needs  coaching support?   Contact 3Plus now!

Look out for our online Returner Roll-Ups in July and August


Mai Ensmann Contributor
Mai is a Training and Development Professional with 15 years’ experience as an international project manager leading humanitarian initiatives, and designing and delivering training programs on protection, human rights and crisis intervention. Mai has worked in both an executive and volunteer capacity for international organizations in Kyrgyzstan, Chad, Malawi, Uganda, Ghana, as well as the U.S. She has earned an MEd from Harvard University.

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