making overseas experience count

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(A reposting of what is – in my opinion, at least – an interesting post from 2007, including the original comments)

A reader asked me an interesting question a while back:  “I lived for 2 years in northern Peru as a missionary. Although this wasn’t with a corporation, I still gained tremendous experience and now speak Spanish fluently. How can I make this overseas experience look valuable to future employers?” As I mentioned once in 8 steps to a six-figure career, I think an ‘weird’ assignment like an overseas posting for your company is a great career move. However, just because you spent time overseas in a non-business role doesn’t mean you have to gloss over it on your resume. These can still be powerful resume-boosters if you present them in the right way.

  1. First of all, don’t sell YOURSELF short. Many people in the business world will be convinced that analyzing a spreadsheet is “better business experience” than leading a team of people building a house. They are wrong. When you come across people like this, don’t let them discourage you. Managing a team is managing a team. Analyzing problems and developing solutions are the same skills whether you’re talking about building a house OR building a brand.
  2. Keep “on message”. If your missionary work involved building homes for poor people or organizing a new congregation or similar types of projects, make sure you sell the activity, not the description. What does that mean? Say “organized and led a team of 18 in repairing structural damage to an 1800 square foot building” instead of “helped rebuild a church.” Stay specific. Even people who are IN business make this mistake: telling someone you “participated in a project to reengineer a corporate reporting process” is not as impressive as saying “saved the company $2.3 million per year by making 13 reports paperless.” Participating in big projects may sound grand, but leading a small project with definite, measurable results is far more impressive.
  3. Write it down. Related to the point above, write down everything you did while you were overseas. Try to write a bullet point list, and keep descriptions down to one or two lines per activity. Imagine you are writing instructions to your successor: relay basic information and bare details. Don’t add any extra information. This list is important because it allows you to focus on what looks impressive on paper. Your first, best and often only chance to impress is in a resume; don’t assume that the stories you can tell in an interview will translate well to paper.
  4. Use the experience to show you are independent and a risk-taker. In the reader’s example, northern Peru missionary work is something most people would be afraid to do. Go ahead and play up the independent/risky aspect of it. They don’t need to hear about how the trip had been undertaken by 15 missionaries before you – they need to hear how you spent 3 days in a small village with no phones and nobody who spoke English. Emphasize how risk affected your work.
  5. Language skills, especially Spanish, are staggeringly important – in the right company. They can be pointless in the wrong company. Spanish is often incredibly useful, but I worked with one company that had a minimal presence in the Latin American market and didn’t really care about having Spanish language skills. Identify companies that need Spanish speakers. If the company doesn’t need Spanish speakers, one of your key selling points is worthless, and you should really consider whether it’s worth pursuing work with that company.
  6. Be careful claiming fluency. If you are fluent in a language, say you are fluent. Offer casually to conduct interviews in Spanish or English – hiring managers will be impressed. However, there is a BIG caveat. I can’t tell you how many times I have tripped up people with this question in an interview: if you claim you are fluent in a language, tell me how to say “balance sheet”. Make sure you brush up on common terms. If you’re going to interview with a publishing company, make sure you know how to say “publishing industry” or “royalties.” Don’t assume fluency means native speaker. When I was working in Russia I knew how to say “limited stock share equity” in Russian, but didn’t know the word for “pillow.” The context for fluency can be tricky!

It’s not impossible whatsoever to translate non-business experiences into selling points, but it does require thinking in a different way than you may be used to. Finding a job also requires identifying good opportunities and being realistic. If you think that missionary work is a good first step to being an Oracle database administrator, you’re probably wrong. If you think that management, risk-taking and teamwork are skills that are universally needed, you’re right!

15 Replies to “making overseas experience count”

  1. I think that any non-corporate overseas experience should look valuable to employers.

    Ignore whether you got paid for the work or not, who wouldn’t want to hire somebody who was self-reliant, could lead a team, was used to interacting with a wide variety of people, could speak Spanish…

    Sometimes it seems like because someone’s experience was enjoyable and was done for non-commercial / non-financial reasons they themselves discount it. Always seems like a mistake.

  2. Very cool. And good for any non-traditional experience, I think. Like taking a year off after college to do volunteer work or even coming back to work after a few years of being a parent or freelancer. 🙂

  3. I totally agree about the languages. I am native Russian speaker, but I do not know Russian business terminology, I don’t know how to say assets and liabilities, for example. So, what does it make me, still fluent in Russian or not???

  4. Bubelah, I’d say it makes you fluent in Russian in general, but non-fluent in for a business job requiring Russian. However, you could become fluent easily enough because you already have the basic grammar and structure down. If it’s your field (i.e. you’re applying for a job that would need it) you would already know the English concepts and would merely need to memorize some vocabulary.

    I work in health research. I can’t ask someone in Spanish what the weather outside is doing, and I certainly couldn’t function in an interview setting, but I can extract data from medical literature because I know the terminology well enough to recognize it, I know the patterns of reporting common in clinical trials, and I’m familiar with the roots of Spanish as a language descended from Latin. Definitely not fluent by anyone’s standards, but functional in my job.

    Did you know the Spanish word for pump is the same as the word for bomb? Proton pump inhibitors (inhibidores de la bomba de protones) are medications for reducing acid in your stomach. About 15% of adult North Americans are on one right now. Proton bomb inhibitors sound like something Homeland Security would be interested in, and certainly not something you would want to ingest. The English abstracts (summaries) published with Spanish articles often contain this mistake. It’s a good example of why you need to be fluent in the terminology in question as well as in the language as a whole.

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  6. Yea, depending on what you do for a living, bilingual pieces can really help out on SO many levels and can be applied to 1000s of different careers. Pointing it out on a resume is always beneficial and I’d argue should be near the top of the resume depending on your career choice… good post.

  7. @Plonkee: amen, I couldn’t agree more – but corporations are convinced that CORPORATE jobs are the end-all, be-all sometimes. It’s one of my issues with them.

    Bubelah, I agree with Fecundity. You could spend 5 minutes with a financial terms dictionary and know them all easily if you needed to, since it’s your native language. My point was just that if you plan on interviewing for a business position, better be ready for the technical terms. I have the opposite problem in German – I am very conversational but I couldn’t talk business to save my life. It’s all just context….

  8. I have a military background and made the jump from the military to the civilian workforce. Making such a drastic career change can be difficult if it is not done well and prepared for. The situation is actually very similar to this example. The key is to find ways to relate your previous experiences into terms and actions your potential employers will understand and respect. The examples you stated in your article are great.

    Sometimes, a little creativity can do wonders as well. I have a friend who took a year off to be a stay-at-home dad. When he started recirculating his resume, he left that year in his job history and described his position as “domestic engineer.” He said he received more phone calls from HR reps about that statement than he did about his qualifications – of which he had many. He had no trouble getting hired.

  9. “Domestic engineer” – I love that. I’d hire someone like that on creativity + guts alone!

  10. Oooh, “Domestic Engineer” sounds so much better than “Homemaker”. Quite creative ! So, “Domestic Engineer” does scheduling, planning, arbitration, multitasking, entertaining, transporting, creating, teaching + she gets to kiss her boss’ chubby cheeks hundreds of times during the week ;o)

  11. I worked in Ghana, West Africa and in India for about 3 years each.

    Both of them were deeply enriching experiences. Mostly good and some not so good, like the case in India where someone filed a case against me claiming I had put a knife at his throat and asked him to sign some documents. And the judge thought this was worthy of examining and asked the cops to investigate. (I was not even in India during the said year.)

    I am hoping to write a book on my experiences, as a guide to small and medium sized industries seeking to expand their businesses to developing countries.

    Your post is so timely for me. I thank you.

  12. i do believe overseas experience is a plus! jst recently i got some cvs of people wishing to freelance for the company where i work, and one of the most impressive was by someone who was living in the US (we are european) for several months – NOT on business. i decided to try to hire him, and he is now freelancing for us on a regular basis. he is very good. i did not care whether he was a volunteer or a white collar person, and his work is very convincing so that it was probably the right decision.

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