The vast majority of the companies in the Fortune 1000 have operations outside continental North America. And as large companies set up international shops, they often transfer employees abroad.
The cost of sending an employee overseas is significant. Professionals transferred by their companies often have generous "expat packages" that take care of housing, relocation, schooling, and offer perks such as extra salary and bonus, "hardship" pay, and extended vacation time. The days of the full-fledged expat are numbered from the start, however: Once local employees have been sufficiently trained, the position is often "localized" with a local hired to do the same job (typically at a fraction of the cost to the company). A local employee, once trained and developed sufficiently, will take on the role once the "knowledge transfer" is complete.
In addition to knowledge transfer, another type of transfer is important to global companies. This is "culture transfer" -- disseminating the corporate culture to distant offices. Culture transfer is often achieved through routine rotations of workers between offices. In many of these companies, an overseas stint is expected, and can sometimes be crucial for advancement within the company.
The surest way to land an expat assignment is to join a company with a global presence that regularly sends junior and mid-level employees overseas. Many multinational corporations (MNCs), fit this bill. By definition, a multinational is a company with offices outside of its home country. All large multinationals, whether they specialize in consumer goods, industrial production, financial services or consulting, have offices and production all over the world, and many offer international rotations to their employees as a perk -- or a necessity.
Some industries, such as shipping and energy, are more global than others. While they are not among the "sexiest" of industries, joining one of these industries virtually guarantees you a global career. For example, Maersk, one of the largest shipping companies in the world, offers a two-year management trainee program that hires more than 400 young college grads from 80 countries every year, grooming them for a global career within the shipping and logistics industry.
MNCs in other industries are also known for their global orientation. In these companies, including household names like Citigroup and General Mills, an international stint is virtually guaranteed to anyone interested. Many offer two-year management and associate trainee programs that include international rotations.
If you're not in a rotational program, don't expect to be transferred by your company until you've worked with them for a while. Most large U.S.-based corporations will not hire young employees or recent grads for overseas assignments. The exception may be if you have existing work authorization or special language skills.
So -- the bottom line is if you're committed to an international career and would like to work abroad under the aegis of a large corporation, find a company that will rotate you overseas shortly after joining them, or be prepared to spend a significant amount of time working your way up the ladder. Otherwise, don't expect to be transferred immediately to an overseas office.
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