When systems engineer Aled Morsford secured a job at one of the world’s leading aerospace companies after completing university, he assumed he would be there for the long haul. This was the late 1980s, when having one career with one employer was seen as a typical pathway to success.
Five years down the track, however, and the promised promotion and pay rise didn’t materialise. This was a problem for the goal-orientated Aled. He worked hard. He had the right qualifications. But taking a step back made him realise that things were unlikely to change anytime soon. It wasn’t until he successfully applied for a contractor role working under the umbrella of the same aerospace company in Saudi Arabia that his career really took off.
“Spread your wings”, says Aled, when Modern Work asked him what advice he would give people considering thinking of contracting or freelancing across international borders.
“You gain so much, and it’s not always something you’d immediately think to put on your CV. You learn about different cultures, different ways of working, different companies and how they work.”
Aled would know. His time in Saudi Arabia lasted five years, and he has spent cumulatively well over a decade since contracting to major aerospace and defence companies across continental Europe.
There are a number of things you need to consider when trying to win work internationally. And these apply whether you are one of the growing number of digital nomads – people who can pack up their laptop and work on any project from virtually anywhere on earth (provided there’s decent coffee and stable wi-fi) – or, like Aled, move to a specific location to work on a project as a contractor.
Working overseas isn’t all smooth sailing – or flying, for that matter, if you work in aviation. For every tale or cheery Instagram post of globetrotting travellers combining work while they wander, there are examples of hardship and disappointment. But if you are thinking about spreading your wings, there are some things you can do to ensure minimal turbulence during the transition.
Firstly, there are the practical considerations. Do you need a visa? Are you eligible to work where you want to go? Do you need to register for tax? Doing some basic research at the beginning of the process ensures that your dreams of combing work with travel can get off the ground.
Secondly, Aled says, you’ve got to pack the right attitude. “When you come to contract in different countries, then you have to respect the culture and their knowledge base.
“It’s paramount that you get on with people and you don’t alienate them.”
So you’ve arrived in-country, what next? If you already have a contract lined up, then finding suitable accommodation is both a priority and a pain.
“I often go to the city I’m to be based in a bit earlier and scope it out,” says Aled.
“I try to get in with other contractors who are willing to share information about accommodation, places to eat, where to stay, agencies to use and those not use. You need to establish a firm baseline.”
If you are digital nomad, or arrive in country without a contract, there are many platforms which are dedicated to connecting freelancers to organisations looking for specialist skills. This raises another practical consideration – do you invoice in local currency or pounds?
“That will often be dictated by company policy. For example, in the Middle East I was paid partly in pounds, and partly in local currency.”
Many online platforms will often require you to accept an offer in a certain currency. If not, make sure it is clear during your negotiations which currency you’re quoting in. And take advantage of services like Transferwise which often make transferring money between countries more cost effective than using banks.
Finally, getting a good accountant is “invaluable” Aled says. For many, leaving the relative security of a full-time job for the uncertainty of contracting or freelancing is made more alluring by the prospect of working internationally.
But does the reality meet the lofty expectations? “I wouldn’t consider going back to working as an employee. To be goal orientated is one of the perks of being a contractor.
“Overall, working internationally has made me a more rounded engineer,” says Aled. “The fact you’ve lived in a place where you’re totally out of your comfort zone, where you’re taken away and have to deal with people on a daily basis and understand their culture and work with difference, that is massive.”
By Chris Piggott-McKellar