If you have a penchant for travel and a sense of adventure, but you still need to earn a living, working for the federal government overseas might be the perfect fit. Of the nearly 3 million total U.S. government employees, more than 89,000 work outside the United States in some 140 countries scattered across the globe.
The good news for those who already work for the government is that federal employees have the inside track and most jobs are only advertised publicly if no in-house applicants step forward.
The range of overseas jobs is broad and varied. By far the largest employer is the Department of Defense, which maintains military bases and other facilities throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Because many service members and civilians assigned to those posts take along their families, the DoD operates schools that are responsible for educating some 50,000 children. That means there is always a need for teachers at both the elementary and secondary level, and salaries, which are commensurate with experience, are comparable to those offered in U.S. schools.
The military also operates a number of hospitals and medical facilities overseas, so there is an ongoing need for physicians, nurses and other medical personnel. Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, for example, is located in Germany and serves not only members of the military stationed in Europe, but also their families and wounded service members who are evacuated from Iraq and Afghanistan.
While they form the largest contingent of employees, teachers and health care personnel are far from the only jobs available for government employees who want to work and live abroad. Engineering, IT, social work, telecommunications, human resources, accounting and many other fields also have needs, and the retirement or reassignment of overseas personnel means that positions open up routinely. However, a number of lower-level jobs – clerical and secretarial positions, for example – usually are filled locally, although family members of government employees stationed abroad can be considered.
How much money can you expect to earn? Overseas salaries are based on the same General Schedule that dictates the pay scale for employees based in the U.S., and the benefits match those provided to all civil service employees. However, those working abroad also receive travel and moving expenses to and from their foreign posts, and most have their basic living expenses such as housing paid as well. In some cases, employees receive extra compensation when they are assigned to areas where safety considerations or other hardships are a concern.
Before you start packing your bags, be aware that competition for overseas jobs is stiff, especially for English-speaking countries like England and Australia, as well as all European nations. If you want to give yourself a leg up, learn a language. Many overseas positions require that candidates be proficient in the native tongue of the country to which they are posted – and of course being able to communicate will make your stay infinitely more comfortable and enjoyable – so developing those skills will boost your chances enormously. In some cases, agencies hire candidates and then give them time to learn the language before they take up their posts, but it’s best not to count on it, especially for lower-level jobs.
There are several other ways to increase your chances of snagging a coveted overseas position:
- Get in shape. Everyone who is hired for a government job abroad must pass a thorough physical exam, and although people with disabilities must be given the same consideration as other applicants, anyone with a serious medical condition likely will not be hired because access to good health care simply is not available in some locations. If you’re planning to take family members along, they will have to pass a physical as well.
- Brush up on your English. While you might need to be fluent in a foreign language, government employees who work abroad also are expected to be extremely proficient in both written and verbal English. Not only is it a necessity for most positions, but you’ll also be representing your country, so it is expected that you will set a good example.
- Be patient. If you already work for the federal government, you know that the hiring process is not an overnight, turn-on-a-dime affair. Getting an overseas position typically takes even more time – at least a couple of months and in some cases, much longer – so apply early.
- Be prepared for a thorough background check. All applicants must pass a comprehensive security clearance, which can be a lengthy process. In the post-9/11 environment, anyone with circumstances that might raise a red flag – a foreign-born spouse, immediate family members who are not U.S. citizens, extensive travel to certain parts of the world – can expect an extremely rigorous screening process.
- Be flexible. If you have your heart set on living in Rome and won’t settle for less, you’ll lower your chances of being selected for an overseas position. It stands to reason that if you keep your options open and are not overly picky about where you’re posted, you’re more likely to get hired, and once you prove that you can be successful at handling the experience of living and working abroad, you’ll boost your chances of getting more desirable appointments when they become available.
- Broaden your resources. There are many ways to find and apply for overseas jobs, so learn to use all of them. USAJOBS.gov is a great place to start. The site lets you search for positions in various parts of the country and the world, and it’s a good way to get a feel for the kinds of jobs that are available, including the salary and information about how to apply. However, don’t forget to check out the individual federal agencies that deploy personnel overseas. In addition to the Department of Defense, which has by far the largest number of jobs, try the departments of State, Justice, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security, all of which have employment information on their websites. And if you like doing things the old-fashioned way, visit your local library or bookstore for a copy of The Book of U.S. Government Jobs. While it’s an excellent guidebook for finding and securing any federal position, it has a special section containing advice for those hoping to work abroad.