Boosting your career by working abroad? – a new study examined the effects of international work

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A new study from the University of Vaasa supports the idea that international experience has positive effects on the development and careers of individuals.

– People who have worked abroad are usually very satisfied with their experiences and recommend that it is worth going abroad to look for new interesting experiences and challenges, says Vesa Suutari, Professor of Management.

International work is becoming more common, especially in the business sector, as companies become more international. In addition, job mobility is also facilitated thanks to individual-level factors, for example due to Finns' language skills and previous international experiences. Thus, international assignments are increasingly available, and Finns are considering international work to be a more realistic career option than it was in the past.

A research project based at the University of Vaasa project has studied how international job mobility affects individuals' careers. The project is part of the EU-funded GLOMO project, which involves fifteen universities and business partners from different EU countries.

The projects implemented in Vaasa also co-operate with two unions (the Academic Engineers and Architects in Finland and the Finnish Business School Graduates), as more than a thousand members of both associations work temporarily abroad. The survey in the project was answered by more than 400 members of these associations, who typically work in expert and managerial positions.

In Vaasa, the project is led by professors Vesa Suutari and Liisa Mäkelä, with Rodrigo MelloInes Escobar Borruel and Tania Biswas as researchers.

Professor of Management, Vesa Suutari, University of Vaasa.

Those who have been working abroad increase their confidence and skills – this is reflected in their career success

The results of the study show that international work is a very challenging and developmental experience. This is due to a number of factors related to the nature of the work, as well as the specific environment where employees operate. Jobs are often more varied and challenging abroad. At the same time, international work tends to be more independent and autonomous. Moreover, professionals have to operate in a new environment where the dominant culture is different. International experiences are perceived to have increased individuals' self-awareness and self-confidence, competencies and social networks. All of these factors are known to be relevant to an individual’s success in employment.

Due to the challenging nature of the experience, international work is often associated with a risk of deterioration in well-being. However, according to the study, expatriates felt that they managed this very well. Job requirements such as urgency and responsibilities, or the challenge of the international work environment with health or safety risks, for example, did not impair their performance or increase their willingness to interrupt their international assignment.

Indeed, a five-year follow-up study shows that career capital raised from international positions increased career success in the longer term. The majority of respondents were also satisfied with their success in their careers.

Tania Biswas and Rodrigo Mello, GLOMO project researchers from the University of Vaasa.

The more independent the job abroad, the more rewarding the career

The study also identifies several factors that explained career success after working abroad. Although the effects were positive on average, the effects were stronger among some respondents than others.

The success was explained in the first place by the characteristics of the work abroad, i.e., not all tasks were equally useful for career development. The more autonomous and varied the tasks were, the more likely it was that the experience would become useful in the long-term career path. Similarly, the compatibility between the job that followed the period abroad with what had been learnt internationally contributed to success. This meant that not everyone was able to make the same use of their lessons learned abroad in their careers.

In addition, how active individuals were in planning and managing their own careers was important, meaning that their own activity is also rewarded with better success rates. There were also differences in the type of international work, as some respondents were posted abroad by their employer, while some had applied for work abroad without company support. Career success was at the same level in both groups, but those who applied independently were even more satisfied with their careers than those who worked abroad through their employer. This is probably because, without the limitations of the opportunities offered by one company, individuals were better able to find suitable jobs for themselves. Indeed, those who have worked abroad have been found to be more active in moving between different companies, industries and countries.

Professor of Human Resource Management Liisa Mäkelä, University of Vaasa

Companies should provide support and coaching

The results also emphasize the need to train and support those working abroad, and to plan their career carefully so that they can find sufficiently challenging and interesting tasks even after working abroad. The role of individual’s proactivity towards their own career planning was also highlighted.

– Both people going abroad and companies should be aware that this is a challenging experience that needs to be prepared for carefully. The same applies to the repatriation process after the international experience, says Professor Vesa Suutari.

Additional information

Professor Vesa Suutari, University of Vaasa, tel. +358 29 449 8433, vesa.suutari (@)
Professor Liisa Mäkelä, University of Vaasa, tel. +358 29 449 8561 liisa.makela (@)

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