Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Work, Part Two

Busy week. But then, I say that every week, don't I?

I got a few comments on my last post, and a couple in particular are sticking with me. One reader commented, in part: "I think that it is great that you have one of the Professional Associate jobs at the Embassy, but I was taken aback by your comment 'It's probably the best paying job you can get at the Embassy, and it's a 'real' job - not typing, filing, shredding, or escorting visitors around the building.' For a spouse any job he/she can find overseas is a "real job" even if it is escorting a visitor or an electrician around the Embassy."

First off, apologies if I offended anyone out there. Point taken: any job you can get overseas is a real job, in that you show up every morning and do the work you are paid to do. But truthfully, I do feel that some jobs are "realer" than others. And this is going to become a bigger and bigger problem in the future, as spouses begin to demand access to these real jobs.

Here's the problem. Take a person like me. I have more than one degree hanging on my wall. I speak two languages well and have studied five others. I had a serious pre-foreign service job, managing teams and managing money and managing words on paper. I've been published in some rather well-known news outlets. In other words, I've got a pretty damn good resume. 

But that doesn't matter when I show up at an Embassy. I can compete, of course, for a lot of the advertised jobs. But many of those jobs, frankly, aren't at all challenging to me, and I don't want them. Or I'm competing for the job I want against scores of other equally over-qualified spouses.

Some spouses disagree. I had a friend at another post who absolutely loved her job. She worked in the mailroom of a large post, and her job was to stamp packages and send them down the line. But, as she told me, she got to chat with friends who showed up at her window, and at the end of the day, she went home and she didn't give her job another thought. She was thrilled to have it.

Lots of other spouses are more like me. If we're going to leave our kids and go to work, we want it to be worthwhile, intellectually, financially, some way, somehow. And while we all weigh our options differently, the truth is, it's hard for an educated spouse to find meaningful work overseas. It really is. 

I have friends who are doctors and lawyers who can't find anything remotely suitable, so they stay home instead. Friends who made six-figure incomes in the States and are now working for close to minimum wage.

It's hard out there for a spouse. And I know the State Department is looking at ways to remedy the situation, through programs like the professional associates program. But there simply aren't enough of those jobs to go around. And that's why I was so pleased to snag one of them.

I don't mean to insult those who have the other jobs: the security escorts, and the shredders and the data entry clerks. Believe me, I've been there too, many times over. But I personally believe that smart, educated spouses deserve to have more options. 

Which leads me to a second comment I got: "Why doesn't DOS make more of an effort to put qualified spouses/EFMs into jobs that are currently held by local hires? I get that an EFM is going to have to be replaced in 2 years and a local hire has more longevity potential. But it seems backwards to me that they give more opportunity to local hires than the very citizens who are there serving their country..."

Good question. But it has a good answer.

At every post, the local staff is the actual backbone of the Embassy. The local staff in my current office, for example, or the one I was in previously, can do things I couldn't begin to do, and they have a knowledge base I can never acquire. They know how to get people on the phone, and what to say when they've got 'em there. They know how to read the newspaper to find the underlying meaning. They know how to read the street. They can tell us all sorts of things that would otherwise fly right over our heads, because they are part of the culture, whereas as we are just skimming the surface.

Without its local staff, an Embassy would literally collapse. And in many cases, the jobs they do simply aren't doable by an American EFM. We don't have the lifelong connections, and can't make those connections in our time on the ground. Even if we speak the local language, we're not going to be able to communicate on the same level as them. 

So while I'd agree that there are always a few jobs out there that are taken by a local that could be encumbered by an EFM instead, I'd argue that in most cases, this isn't true.

So there you have it. You all gave me some interesting things to ponder, and I appreciate the comments and questions. Keep them coming: I'll try to answer them if I have a decent answer. 

I'll be back soon with a less serious post. But for now: I'm off to work!


G K said... [Reply]

Very interesting to read your perspectives on EFM employment. As an EFM working in the local economy, I personally know how difficult it is to secure employment. In particular, being a non-US citizen EFM, the options are extremely limited: there are no jobs available at the Embassy, and the support offered by the Embassy to find employment in the local economy is zero.

Paul Durrant said... [Reply]

Great article and one which is very timely for me as my wife is currently in the 169th class and we are waiting for flag day next month.

Personally, I have been racking my brains about whether I can keep my job, get a new job, whether I can work in the same field, whether I can get a visa, whether I should study something new etc.

Like you (and a large % of of EFMs). I am well travelled and educated to a high level, with a very well paying job and years of experience. I am supporting my wife with this career as it is has been her dream and passion since she was a little girl but it does seem a little unfair that I should have to give up / not progress in my career as a result.

We have discussed this at length over the past year and I know that this is the one thing she feels most guilty about but my attitude is to see how everything plays out and then to make the best of the situation. It appears that you have done this.

Do you have any advise for me at the moment?

Kelly said... [Reply]

Very thoughtful piece. I would have to agree with the commenter on your previous post that all jobs are "real" jobs. I mean they are all work that someone has to do, right? Even the janitor has a real job.

But, on the other hand, I am thankful that I am not so desperate for work that any real job will do for me. They are constantly advertising for security escorts at my current post, and I guess that's because even at this huge mission, no spouse is interested in doing that kind of work.

Congrats on getting a job that is right for YOU!

Jessica said... [Reply]

Congrats on the position. This is an issue I've (obviously) thought about alot. And I totally agree that at some point State is going to start losing FSOs because spouses can't find the kind of work they want to do. I'm not sure there is a fix for it. I've always told folks who are going out that if you're flexible, you can find something. But it's not easy. Although I've also found it liberating in a way that I bet you do too. I would have never taken the time to really try my hand at writing if I hadn't gone to Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan. I would have been in some law firm slaving away. (Oh wait, that's what I'm doing now ...) Point is, getting off the beaten track can sometimes open up opportunities that weren't there before. I've always considered it a real blessing.

Miss you guys and stay safe over there.

Please. Write your own stuff.