Overseas work: It's résumé rich without the riches

George Weber has a passport littered with stamps and a résumé bursting with international experience.

During his seven years as the secretary-general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Geneva, the Canadian journeyed from floods in North Korea to famine-stricken regions of Africa.

"I was on the road eight months of the year, so I had a commuter marriage," he said. In 2000, his career path veered into a new direction when he decided to take a job as CEO of the Canadian Dental Association in Ottawa.

Although Mr. Weber tackles mostly domestic issues in his current position, he believes the experience he gained running a diverse global organization helped him get the job. But unlike situations where people switch jobs for more prominence or higher pay, his career change was motivated by personal reasons and involved a pay cut.

"In my case, it was a good opportunity to re-enter Canada," he said.

Executive recruiter Jay Rosenzweig of Toronto-based Rosenzweig & Co. likes to see global experience on résumés because it suggests the candidate can adapt to various cultural working scenarios. "If a candidate has been in the same company and same city for 20 years . . . they may not be as attractive as someone who has worked and lived in different places."

He maintains that people who work in various jobs -- potentially in various geographical locations -- are likely to out earn those who stay put. "Each time you move, you typically take a jump in pay."

But before rushing to the passport office, Mr. Rosenzweig recommends people first make strategic career decisions. "Don't hop on a plane in an anxious whim to try and build your career. Assess what you want to accomplish."

His advice is to come up with a clear plan for which area within the business world you want to specialize in. If it turns out that specialty is not well established within Canada, then go wherever you need to in order to get the best training possible. In that case, working abroad can be an invaluable career-builder, opening doors and potentially leading to fatter paycheques.

"That person will be holding the cards and can later choose to come back home to Canada and do tremendously well," he said.

Career experts agree that overseas experience such as Mr. Weber's can lead to career advancement and more money. But a Statistics Canada report released this week questions whether working outside of Canada will necessarily result in riches when you return.

The Statscan study, by Queen's University economics professor Ross Finnie, used income files from between 1982 and 2003 to measure the relative earnings growth among men who worked abroad and have since returned, compared with those who chose to work solely in Canada. (Women were excluded because their earnings patterns were considered to be closely linked to family responsibilities.)

Prof. Finnie became fascinated with the so-called "brain drain" in the 1990s, when vast numbers of talented people were thought to be fleeing the country in search of greener working pastures. A commonly held belief that developed with the hype was that individuals who wanted to further their careers -- and eventually earn more money -- needed to leave Canada.

However, Prof. Finnie's study found that in terms of earnings, there are only "limited" benefits from working abroad and returning. Those who benefit most leave for only a short period and are in a relatively lower earnings bracket.

On average, the study concluded that men who work outside of Canada's borders for between two to five years had the biggest pay benefit. In the first five years back in Canada, their earnings were 12 per cent higher than in the last five before leaving. (The analysis took into account the expected earnings growth had they stayed in Canada.)

Those who worked internationally for one year experienced only a 7-per-cent average rise in their relative earnings while those who stayed away six years or more -- as in the case of Mr. Weber -- were found to have lower earnings back home in Canada.

Also, people who had lower pre-departure earnings -- less than $60,000 a year -- were most likely to out earn those who remained in Canada. Those at the highest levels -- above $100,000 -- experienced small and more uneven gains.

In the end, Prof. Finnie refused to weigh in on whether pursuing global work opportunities was a career booster or a career sinker. "A 12-per-cent rise in earnings would make many people happy. What this shows is that, on average, those who go away and come back have substantial -- but not huge -- earnings gains."

Bill MacKenzie, a senior consultant with career transition management firm Knebel Watters and Associates in Toronto, feels people should not make the decision to work abroad based solely on pay. "It should not be about titles and compensation. It really depends on what people are looking to do."

International work can provide someone with breadth and depth of experience that could be part of their strategic advantage and lead to career advancement, Mr. MacKenzie said, adding that he tends to see it as résumé bonus.

"But I don't encourage clients to gain international experience in order to be more marketable or competitive," he said. "I think it depends more on what people's career goals might be

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