Beyond the Glitter – Living and Working Overseas

We all have seen them. Stories, typically of young people, out to travel around the world on only a few dollars. Stories about couples who set up a bed and breakfast in Thailand or another exotic location. Stories about a stockbroker who decides to leave New York City behind for the glories of a simpler life overseas.  They are often written in a style that could be called “romantic”.  Beautiful photos and inspiring stories.  But are such stories real?  Do people actually do this beyond a handful of hopeless romantics?

Yes, they do.  Here in Panama where I am an expat, you can be four young Americans taking an idea from home and turning it into a success that won them an award a few years ago as “Entrepreneurs of the Year” in Panama, despite being expats.  Or you can be older and a Canadian who has set up the traditional North American dream, a small hotel, or you can be from Denmark or from Thailand or from Britain, as just a few examples.  You can even be from Venezuela and set up a foreign franchise in Panama, one of eleven of this business here.  Yes, Venezuelans are as much “expats” in Panama as Americans in Australia, as are the many Latin Americans from Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia and others who have moved here in recent years, many of them setting up businesses.

Does this have any significance to the global community and its future?  Two recent studies suggest it does.

The Boston Consulting Group has recently released a report available in PDF form at their site titled, “The Global Workforce Crisis: $10 Trillion at Risk”.  They look at the coming five to fifteen years and discuss the growing imbalance between those nations with surplus labor and those with a deficit, and the need for the two to find each other, so to speak.  The “$10 Trillion ar Risk” is their estimate of the loss of global GDP between now and 2030 if this is not addressed.

McKinsey has released a report also available in PDF form at their site titled, “Can long-term global growth be saved?” that takes a broader view, but includes as one of the ten “enablers” that can help “save” that growth the relocation of labor from one nation to another, stating, “Being open to flows of people can do more than contribute much-needed additional labor to an economy whose own labor pool is eroding. Countries that are more open to immigrants have experienced faster expansion in their labor forces, and will continue to do so, than those that are more closed.”

As you might imagine, there is an emphasis on large nations with a surplus of labor and others with a growing deficit of labor.  But the fact is that many nations need labor too, but they are not large enough to catch the attention of major consulting firms.  Panama has nowhere near enough trained people in many areas to meet the needs of an economy whose inflation-adjusted GDP has more than doubled since I first visited in 2004 and which continues to rise well above the average of the so-called “advanced economies”.  You know, the ones up to their ears in debt and can’t make up their minds what to do about it.

These are the nations, some growing rapidly, others not yet but with real potential, that can give an individual or couple the opportunity to find a job or build a business and a new, more interesting life without being the “drop in a bucket” they may be the case in a nation like Brazil.  Some assume that size means wealth, but Panama has a per-capita GDP (PPP) a third higher than Brazil.  For small businesses, total wealth is not the question; it is the availability of disposable income to the local household that makes the difference for them.

So how do you find a job?  There are the global “job sites” that offer a variety of positions from firms in other nations.  But get real.  You are not likely to get a job, anywhere, without showing up in-person for an interview.  You are going to have to get there on your own dime and, trust me, success is not guaranteed!  But that raises yet another problem.

Too many people think they have to be employed to live and work in another nation.  Yes, that can be true.  Most nations, including the US, require that you already have a solid job offer and a corporate sponsor to get a work permit, visa, or similar document and, even then, nothing is guaranteed.  The basic reason is simple.  Nations are not interested in foreigners competing for jobs with their nationals, even if they are short of labor themselves.   It’s a socio-political thing and I think you can understand that.

But were those businesses I mentioned above and many, many other similar businesses begun by foreigners coming to Panama for employment?  No.  They came and set up corporations.  In Panama, you can do that while still on a tourist visa.  Why is that so much easier than getting a work permit?  You are not taking a job that might go to a Panamanian, you are creating a company that, if successful, can provide jobs to Panamanians.  That is completely different and acceptable locally.

But are there that many people interested in relocating to another nation?  Yes.  Mostly rich people and retirees looking for warmer weather?  No.  I am very familiar with this as my former US firm had nine professional surveys of Americans conducted on the subject.  I wrote about it twice at Barron’s, got interviewed at CNBC, and finally set up a website at AmericaWave.com to post some of the results, freely available to anyone.  Some of the surveys included statistically-valid samples of 20-25,000 adult Americans, a couple only 2-5,000, still much larger than most surveys you read in your daily newspaper or favorite news site.

From 2005 through 2011, the results changed here and there, but two things were very clear.  The great majority of Americans interested in relocation are not retirees and they are not rich.  Our US firm closed its doors as the principals, including me as its CEO, relocated themselves to other nations.  And, frankly, we got tired of being someone’s “soundbite” or interesting “factoid”.  We decided to live the experience.  It’s a lot more fun and much more productive, but we leave the site up for anyone doing research on the topic.

Those surveys were aimed at Americans who had not yet relocated.  For practical purposes, it’s impossible to get a statistically-valid sample of Americans who have already relocated.  There is no database with that information that allows for such a survey.

Many other nations keep much better records.  After all, unlike the US, most nations do not tax their citizens on overseas income, so they really need to know that you are outside the nation if you don’t want to pay.  One excellent (and I suspect very expensive) survey was undertaken by the UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research in 2006.  Even then, before the global financial crisis, they found that nearly 10% of British citizens lived outside the UK.  The report is still up at the BBC site.  Numbers can be found here and text can be found here.  And there is plenty more to be found from other EU nations, particularly since the global financial crisis, if not so well-organized and extensive as this.

Enough on the general topic, the important point is that, if you are actually interested in doing something like this without depending on finding employment first, you will have a challenge finding accurate and up-to-date info at an “international” website on a nation that interests you without being constantly hit by grossly over-hyped claims of “paradise found”, that pretend to know “secrets” (usually about real estate, but anything they want to sell) that are already well-known to those of us living in that nation and certainly aren’t secret, and with expensive “conferences” that can run into the thousands of dollars for an individual, more for a couple, when transport, meals, and accommodations are added to the steep conference fees.  And if you ever write these sites with a specific question expecting a specific answer, good luck to you!

I am fed up with all this. It’s the 21st century, but you wouldn’t know it from these outfits who use a tired old 20th century approach because they make a lot more money doing that, although they are missing and will continue to miss the very age groups that represent the majority of people seriously interested in relocating and who are very much of the 21st century.

Instead of offering a multi-thousand dollar conference in a physical location, I asked myself, why not an Internet conference with a live stream where people can ask specific questions and get them answered directly?  And could it be done on a very small budget?  At 69, I haven’t been employed for several years.  My business partner here, 37, earned his place through “sweat equity” and our strategic partner, an excellent videographer, is 28 and has a thriving small business in Panama, but not up to funding a conference like this. But nothing ventured, nothing gained.

We did it at PanamaWave.com.  We are keeping it going for a full two months to allow late-comers to get into the mix.  An important aspect is the ability to ask questions in live sessions, so this gave more people the chance to find out about it (our marketing budget was almost non-existent) and still profit from that aspect.  We only charge $37.   This is “proof of concept” and it worked.  The feedback has been powerfully positive.  We won’t make any money on it.  The profit is in the experience.  We would like to do it again and even better, maintaining a low double-digit price, if we can fund the next level.  The important thing is that the approach works and people love it!

So I will leave you with two messages to two different groups.

What we did for Panama, we cannot do for other nations.  This should be done by people who live and work in the target nation, so I”m addressing those of you who do. Take a look at our approach, but be open to something better and let us know if you find it!  Use videos.  You can have pre-recorded videos where expats describe their experiences and so forth, but use live streaming for the nitty-gritty topics that interest almost everyone (visa requirements, how to incorporate a business, the availability of health insurance, etc.) and where specific questions are most likely.  Put your nation’s best foot forward, but avoid the hype that you probably already know is so common to sites aimed at your nation, and don’t neglect to mention the pitfalls and challenges too.  Relax, be informal, be responsive.  Have sponsors, you will need them to make any real money, and let them make their pitch, but don’t let them highjack your conference and turn it into one long video ad.  But above all, if you don’t like the way your second nation is being presented on the Internet, do something constructive about it and who knows?  You may have your own new small business.

For those of you sitting at home, interested in relocating, here is a suggestion.  Use search engines, Facebook, whatever and do as much research on the Net as you can.  Eventually, you will probably find a nation that seems especially attractive.  When you do, try to avoid those expensive conferences, including those in your home nation, that are basically money machines and not interested in you as an individual.  Instead, get in a car, a ship, a plane or whatever is relevant and GO!  That money you would have spent sitting in a crowded conference room surrounded by people who know as little as you do can go a long way to paying for your trip (probably pay for it) and getting you where you can get the best information…personal experience.  You will probably be surprised to arrive and find that you are staying at a hotel or hostel full of people like you, and meet many expats who have lived there for years by just walking around and talking to people.

I was once asked by an expat in Panama if he wasn’t a “pioneer”?  I said, no, not in one sense.  This has been going on longer than you have been alive, just in much bigger numbers now.

But in another sense, he and you are pioneers.  You’re pioneering your lives.  And that, when all is said and done, should be the point.

——-

This is a personal blog, more of a notebook, unadvertised and without promotion. It is where I jot down thoughts that are important to me and may potentially be used in other commentaries for general publication. I write when time and spirit allow. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses. I already have too many in my “address book”. Rest assured, yours will be kept private.

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