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.)


  1. Oh, all SO true....after over 20 years, I honestly and truly think the happiest spouses are the ones who just decide to bag it and do their own thing. Trying to be a career EFM will just make you nuts. I've been freelancing/telecommuting part-time for over a decade, and I don't make a lot of money but I have time to do the fun stuff at post and I have never looked back.

  2. Thanks for the affirmation from someone who's been through it all for many years!

  3. I'm with K., er, well that was different on this one. We've only been in 14 years, but I quickly learned that one size does not fit all. At one post, Embassy employment was great, and non-existent at another (so I worked on the local economy). I'm now in the States working full-time as a mom (anyone who says it isn't work...) and soon to be on ISMA when hubby goes to Kabul. I have a hobby that interests me greatly and while I'm not raking it in by any stretch, we are getting by and happy that we don't have to stress over meshing two careers.

  4. I've never heard of that six month rule, but funnily enough, its basically what I advise people. Plan on taking 6 months or more to find a job. Fill in the first six months exploring and studying the language, because you won't have time to do those things once you start working. And never assume you can find a job that fits your qualifications. The job I'm doing now has nothing to do with my interests or background, but I like my coworkers and I pull down a (teeny-tiny) salary, so it's all good. I got it after about nine months at post. Good luck! It's not easy out there for an EFM.

  5. This is such a coincidence - today I emailed my husband upcoming job openings for EFMs at my post and now I see your blog entry. We hope to be able to get him something by the time he arrives in June - I think it won't be a problem as I've had several sections in the embassy ask me: "so, would your husband want to work in the embassy when he arrives here?". He is former military, not sure how that will factor in.
    Do consider place where I am for any future posts - it is francophone and plenty of EFMs positions available...