Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The EFM Work Situation

First, I must define my term: EFM
The official definition is an Eligible Family Member. However, I see a few other versions:
At the beginning of the hiring process, it is important that they are also an Excited Family Member, and that they understand that there is a decent chance that you may be sent to a dangerous post which would therefore make them an Endangered Family Member. But today I plan to share our experiences (thus far) on the road to my husband becoming an Employed Family Member. 
Please first understand my disclaimer:
This is one couple's experience at a very large post in a huge metropolitan city wherein the aforementioned EFM is a novice at the locall language. Everyone's experience will be different depending upon their professional desires and previous work experience, competition from other EFMs or the local work environment, bilateral work agreements between the new country and the US (or lack thereof) and - simply - luck and timing.

The other day, as I was extolling the virtues of it being a Friday, I noticed that Tim seemed depressed about the coming weekend. Why? Because while for me it meant two days of sleeping in and relaxing in the house, for him it meant two more days of waiting to hear back on some job opening. Two more days of knowing that nothing was going to move on the employment front. It meant another week had passed where he still hadn't found a job. Monday was his day of excitement and possibility, not Friday.

Bit of background: my husband has a considerable amount of useful work experience ranging from over a decade in public education to a handful of years in public health. These are what we considered to be "highly portable" skills when we first started talking about a FS life. He also speaks French and was in the Peace Corps at one time in a serious hardship country. This was good stuff! Armed with this confidence, he arrived at post (admittedly a bit disappointed that we're not in a Francophone country) and began applying for the positions advertised within the embassy. But wait, I've skipped a step: he actually started applying before arriving at post and in fact was contacting potential employers three and four months before his arrival.

So what happened? 
Even before arriving at post, we learned the first lesson: that many employers, specifically the local ones, don't want to hear about someone they hadn't already met or weren't going to meet for many months. Those inquiries went exactly nowhere and only proved to leave a bitter taste in his mouth regarding their blatant unresponsivenes. His initiative and foresight went utterly unrewarded, unfortunately. Even after arriving at post, many "cold call" emails of inquiry would go totally unanswered. 

What about the embassy jobs?
While in OMS training, I was told by a 20-year EFM veteran that Tim should be prepared to look for work at least six months at every new post. These words are ringing true today.
We figured that a huge post like Bogota would have a correspondingly huge need. Frankly, I'm unable to compare the number of EFM openings we've come across to those of another post because, well, this is our only experience. However, it seems that when they do come along - which is not very often - they seem to come in three flavors.

First, I've gotten very good at quickly scanning the e-mailed job openings from the CLO (Community Liaison Office) or HR for the base requirements and find myself immediately checking the language requirements first. It seems that about 60% of the openings require a high level of Spanish, say a 4/4 (fluent), which my husband does not possess. I don't even bother reading any further on those openings; they get immediately deleted. (Conspiracy theory has it that the language requirements are so high for some of these positions because they'd really rather hire a local who will stick around for years and years, rather than a stinkin' EFM who will be gone in two years... but that's simply an unsubstaniated theory.)

The next flavor, shall I say, are the uber-qualified openings that appear to be written with someone specific in mind. They want five years of progressively-responsible work in the field of international development, particularly in program management of research projects on white-footed field mice... for example. These come with a nice paycheck, but with firmly written stipulations that unless you can demonstrate exactly these prequisities - keep you day job, kid; you're application ain't going no further.

Finally, there are the job openings for whom nearly any somewhat educated and intelligent adult can apply. They have low requirements in terms of specialized skills, and therefore the entire EFM pool submits their resumes. These are jobs like Consular Assistant, HR Assistant, Security Escort etc... These positions are coveted because they generally require a security clearance, or offer the chance to get one. Which means that if you are new to the EFM gig, this is a great way to get your security clearance for The Next Post where you could be better set to get the sweet job you've been eyeing. People accept these Security Escort positions for good reasons: A) it's a job and it pays an American wage, which at least here means double the local salary; B) you will start to earn towards federal retirement, sick leave, vacation, social security etc... and, C) you will (hopefully) earn your security clearance. Yes, it means you get to escort the plant lady on her rounds through the embassy watering and dusting the potted plants, but that's the dive you have to be willing to take.

What's the downside of the former category?
These positions are deceptively difficult to obtain, leaving the highly-experienced and smarter-than-the-average-bear spouse feeling like a total reject because they can't even get a Security Escort job, fer crissake!   

And be prepared for the advertising, interviewing, hiring, and intake process to take months from the time a position is announced. The bureaucratic machine can easily eat four to six months of your 24 month tour, which makes the waste of precious time particularly aggravating.

Why are they so difficult to get?
Let me segue into a touchy category, if I may. The interview process, as I understand it, is set up in a hierarchy wherein EFM applicants receive preference, but veteran EFMs receive even more preference (veteran as in military, not simply experienced). They pretty much have to absolutely BOMB the interview in order for the hiring committee to have sufficient justification to consider other applicants further down the list. Mix in EFMs who have been around a post or two and have already done the job they're applying for and you might as well just take up crocheting and buying penny stocks. Just fergeddaboutit. Perfectly nice and capable EFMs never get a chance to shine in these interviews if a decent veteran EFM is among the applicants.

What about jobs on the local economy?
This will depend on whether or not there is a bilateral work agreement allowing such a thing to happen, either official or de facto. In some countries, work outside the mission is simply not an option. With over a decade of teaching experience, Tim contacted the list of international schools to offer his services. One school was very impressed with him, and he with them, until it came time to negotiate some form of part-time work with their HR department. They loved him! There were so many areas where he could help out! He didn't even have to work full-time, which was his preference after too many years of 60-hour weeks. An offer did come: three days per week for a three-figure salary per month. Yes, that's right... three figures and the first one was neither a nine, eight, seven, nor six... Basically he'd be working for cab fare and lunch money. Should he accept, he would be hired at the local wage, and teachers here make about $42 per day.

Now we were warned about this, and had read numerous stories of spouses who complained of "earning pennies."  When I read each of these accounts, I thought to myself, "Well that probably only applies to fancy NYC lawyers who are used to earning $150K plus per year. We're not like THAT! We're not in it for the money!" I paraded my high-horse around my mental barn, dismissing these warnings cavalierly. Now I understand what they were talking about.

Which brings us to the next question to ponder: why does the EFM want to work? Is it to further their career? To earn a salary to cover expenses from home, like a mortgage or college tuition or loans? To contribute to retirement savings? To occupy their time? To immerse themselves in the new country's culture and meet local friends? Because each of these reasons will offer different rationale for why taking a job for $500 per month is, or is not, acceptable.

What's the answer?
Well, besides marrying a veteran with years of experience, a hobby to occupy them, a great sense of patience, fluency in five world languages and a nest-egg - all I can recommend is that you two really discuss what it's going to look and feel like when hubby/honey is still at home after seven months of searching and hoping. Or a year, as was the case of a bilingual architect husband at post who was finally offered a job taking fingerprints in the Consular Section.  Tim has chosen not to bank on the embassy jobs, but to concentrate on an independant skill that can be taken to post two and three and four. If an embassy position comes through, great, but in the meantime he'll be more self-reliant.

Hey, remember this is just two people's experience. Your EFM could end up hooking a great job before you even arrive at post, as was the experience of a friend in Moscow and his wife.  I wish you good luck; I hope your experiences will be fulfilling and not frustrating; and I hope you and your veteran's points stay away from me and my EFM.

(Totally kidding.)

(Sort of.)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Back at Hogwarts!

Let me first give full credit to my OMS pal for naming FSI "Hogwarts" (and you know who you are, Foreign Obsession!). She got it exactly right. I'm back at FSI for a one-week course for Front Office OMSes and it's just like when I left it. Except that it's 35 degrees and there is half the population here and absolutely no one having lunch out on the patios. The same cafeteria, same cashiers, same shuttle buses, same jockeying for an open computer before class - yet so much has changed in my life in these past six months.

When I was here last I was all questions about what my first post would be like: the job, the office, the coworkers, the boss, the apartment, the city, the country, how Tim would like it, how the cats would adapt etc... and now I have the answers, the images, the memories already beginning to be stored. I have the names and faces of new friends and an idea about what the heck they're talking about during training.

I'm very excited to be here, however. While I still am hoping for a chance at switching over to being a Consular Officer, if that doesn't come to pass, I really want to do the best job I can as an OMS and that will probably involve Front Office assignments or at least subbing when needed. (Oh - I should explain - Front Office refers to the Chief of Mission's office, which means the Ambassador, the Deputy Chief of Mission or the Consul General if one is not in an embassy.) It's a very different assignment from my current one, and so I am excited to have this chance to learn about it.

But also being here lets me do a few other things: meet other OMSes (and for the first time I'm one of the youngest in the group!) and hear about their assignments from Florida to DC to Where-ever-istan. It also lets me refill my enthusiasm for the job. Not that I'm unenthusiastic IN the actual job, but I find that learning about the possibilities - of which they seem to be limitless - helps me stay motivated and excited about what's coming next. It's not just me; it's endemic in the life and the career. I'm only six months in to my first post and already catch myself thinking about what this summer's bid list will look like. My next assignment will be "directed" as this first one was, and so extra training to boost my skills may help me land a good one.

Or... there's always the Consular Officer option. That excites me even more, and to make that a reality I just need to boost my standing on the hiring register by passing a Spanish language test. "Just" is a light word for a Really Big Deal (for me that is). My language skills have, well, changed. I can't say they're worse, as I've added vocabulary for sure, but they are not moving at the speed they were when I was in dedicated language training. It'll be quite a stretch to pass the language phone test at this point.

Which brings me back to FSI:
I've seen a few familiar faces in the hallways, people I've been seeing since March. Which means I'm seeing people who have dedicated nearly a year to their language training. January seems to be full of folks who over-winter in Chinese or Russian, or other languages that take that long to learn. (Maybe it's just that everyone is bundled up that makes me think they're not here to learn Spanish or Portuguese?) By possibly making the switch to Consular, I'd be sent to the back of the line and back to taking two more directed assignments and the very real chance of being sent to somewhere where I'd need ten months of Arabic or Estonian or Tajik or whatever. And then I'd be here to watch the seasons change and the new faces come and go, come and go. Meeting people only to watch them ship out to post and then come back for a week of training, as I have done.

It's an interesting life, this. Opportunites abound and I'm happy to be here for ride.

Friday, January 06, 2012

So You've Been Invited To The OMS Oral Assessment?

Huge disclaimer:
The Oral Assessment (OA) is covered by a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), and anyone taking it must sign this agreement swearing they will not divulge the contents of the assessment. Therefore, I would like to offer the following NDA-compliant advice to hopeful OMSes out there. I understand invitations to the OA are going out currently, and a few of you have written to ask how they can best prepare. I would like to help out, and here is the best advice I can think of without spilling the beans.

Also, I took the OA over a year ago and they may have completely changed the structure and the requirements since then, in which case this posting may be purely for entertainment purposes.

My background:
I took the OMS OA in 2010 and the FSO OA in 2011 and passed both. I also have been obsessively reading and preparing for this subject and this life since 2009, therefore if this seems a bit excessive - you're probably right! People pass all the time without such structured preparation, and over-zealous people like me fail all the time, too. Go figure. But if this method helps one or two future OMSes, than I will feel satisfied.
Here's the best I can think of:

Writing exercise: 
You don't know what kind of exercise you'll be given, so I have two ways to prepare and both helped me feel confident. First, be aware of the ACT style of 5-paragraph essay in case you need to show an "opinion piece." Meaning, "Some people believe that the Electoral College is the hallmark of democracy, whereas others believe it has outlived its usefulness. What is your opinion and do you feel that the US should continue to use the Electoral College..." blah blah blah. Know how to structure your opinion in a clear, organized and convincing manner. The 5-paragraph structure really helps, even if you think, "the Electoral what?" when you see the question on the page. I would Google this method; I imagine there are lots of how-to's out there as this is what kids in high school have to learn for their SAT, ACT and AP tests. Write timed essays so that you develop your own method of organizing your thoughts under pressure.
Second, go to the Yahoo group for the FSO OA and look in their Files section for the CM portion of their exam. I think that's what it's called, Case Management. I could be wrong on that, but either way, the FSO OA asks applicants to write up a case management essay on how to solve a presented problem. You can see lots of good examples of the problem posed, and then various people's solution essays. I found these very helpful, and particularly mimicked Traveler's style. You'll notice right away that his essays are the best (IMHO). I used this method during the FSO OA, too, and I thought that I would for sure fail that section, but I didn't. It's all about having a practiced method that works for YOU to organize your thoughts in a timed exam.
Third, whatever question they pose to you: (pardon the caps here) MAKE SURE YOU FULLY ANSWER THE QUESTION! Don't beat around the bush, go right out and state your answer: Do you like to eat crab? "Yes, I like to eat crab because 1, 2, 3." Not, "Seafood is a wonderfully healthy way to eat..." See what I mean? Many people, surprisingly, don't fully answer the question.
Grammar and Proofreading:
Know common pitfalls and errors. Read books like, "Woe is I," Strunk and White's "Elements of Style" and any of the dozens of manuals of correct grammar, punctuation and spelling. Start being annoyed when your coworkers put apostrophe's where they don't belong (did you catch that?).  Google online proofreading websites that offer free tests. I don't remember their names, but I found them easily and worked through all their exercises.
Structured Interview:
This is where truly knowing the 12 Dimensions comes in. Here is what I found invaluable: On a piece of paper, cut out the description of the dimension and paste it on top. Brainstorm three examples of things in your life, from any/all of your jobs, to your volunteering to your travels - everything! Pick three examples that BEST fulfill the exact description of that dimension. Write them in order of best to weakest and write them in the STAR format:
Situation (in ONE sentence, set the scene, "I was an ice cream salesperson on the beach in Miami...");
Task ("...when I found that I had way too many Dreamsicles that nobody was buying,"); Action ("I knew I had to market the Dreamsicles better and so I..."),
Result (" the end of my shift, my quick-thinking saved my business and I had sold all the Dreamsicles.") Write down each story in that format so that you can tell the whole story without meandering or forgetting important, concrete actions. Practice these out loud in front of a mirror, in front of friends, in front of anyone who will listen so that you're comfortable hearing yourself, you're using active vocabulary and you're truly giving an example of something you've done that shows why you will be a successful OMS. Be concise! They can and might interrupt you!
This is the State Dept. You will be representing the USG if you get hired. Show the respect the position deserves and dress very nicely, conservatively and professionally. Choosing between the hot red jacket and blouse that shows a bit of cleavage and looks great on you, or the tailored dark blue that says, "Hilary would wear this"? Do you have to ask which one is best? I have to say that there was a young woman who flew thousands of miles for her OMS OA and arrived in a skirt that needed a safety pin to hold it closed (it was visible); scuffed heels with mud on them; her hair pulled back in a rubber band as if she were going running; and an ill-fitting jacket. I just didn't understand why she would do that. She didn't pass. Men, it's not Dockers and a nice shirt time - go for the suit and tie.
Bring a water bottle; bring a snack that will keep you going; spray your hair so you don't have to mess with it, and don't wear come-hither spike-heeled shoes. (That's for your congrats party afterwards!) Bring all requested paperwork completely filled out and anything else they ask you to bring. Half of this task is following directions. That's about it!
I wish you all luck on this long road. It's a fun life and there are some really amazing coworkers waiting to meet you if you're successful.
Let us know what happens!

Sunday, January 01, 2012

2012: Bright Horizons

It seems every holiday or season has its own color scheme: spring and its pastels, fall and Halloween mean rusty oranges, Thanksgiving is warm browns, and Christmas of course is red and green. Although we're only a week past Christmas with its gold trimmings, I see the New Year in bright, clear blue: the color of opportunity, potential and tranquility on a fresh horizon.

For this reason I am overjoyed to report that the weather has recently been cooperating with my vision of the New Year's color palette.

Pretty boring pictures, you say?

Let me explain: First photo is of the sky to the west; second photo is of our horizon to the east and the third is the view from our living room of an utterly vacant street. The wonder and joy of each of these images lies in what is not seen: no clouds, no smog, no rain, no honking, smoke-belching collectivos, no merengue-blaring chivas... nothing. Bogota right now is as vacant as a scene from a post-apocalyptic B-movie. Everyone is away at their - well, I don't know where exactly - but they're not here and they've left us alone to welcome 2012 with the most beautiful 73+ degree crystal-blue sky days.

Thank you for this little gift; we look forward to filling the fresh horizon with new adventures, experiences, friends, meals, music and hopefully a few more  days like this.