In late 2009, after Craig Jones was made redundant from his job in China and returned home to Sydney to take it easy and improve his golf game, a job offer came out of the blue.
Property and economics consultancy MacroPlan Dimasi was restructuring and wanted his help. Three years later, Jones is the general manager of one of Australia’s largest property consultancies, and says he owes his job, in part, to skills he gained in China.
Aged only 30, Jones went to Beijing in 2007 as CBRE’s director of industrial and logistic services for Northern China. “For me, being a younger executive, setting up offices and building a team was probably the biggest learning experience and challenge that I had,” he says. “I’d never built a team before. It was very, very challenging and rewarding at the same time.”
It was those skills that helped him win his new role at MacroPlan Dimasi when he returned to Australia.
Jones is one of many Australians working overseas in the property sector who have returned home since the onset of the global financial crisis. While he found work easily, recruiters say many other expats have experienced more difficulty.
Australia was hit mildly by the GFC compared with many locations where expat Australians were working, such as the UK, the Middle East and Asia. As the work dried up, Australians have returned home to take advantage of the stronger economy.
The strong local dollar is also luring Australians home, especially in light of the fact that many expat salary packages with their generous accommodation and travel allowances and tax breaks are being withdrawn.
Whatever the hopes of the returning expats, recruiters say overseas experience doesn’t guarantee entry into top jobs back in Australia. It depends on where the candidate was working and the sort of experience they gained.
Shane Little, regional director of Hays Property, says in the soft jobs markets, many employers prefer local over foreign experience.
“In the current market, in the property space, it’s competitive from a candidate’s point of view and there aren’t lots and lots of vacancies out there and the employer is therefore in a position of strength,” he says.
“If an employer is faced with an employee who has four years overseas experience or a similar level candidate who’s got four years most recent experience in the Australian domestic market, they’re going to go with the Australian experience, because that person will come with local contacts and knowledge of the local market and won’t require as much bedding-in time as someone coming in from overseas.”
The returning expats gained different experience in different sectors depending on where they were located. Those who had gone to the US, the UK and Asia worked mostly in investment management, funds management and capital-raising. Those who went to the United Arab Emirates typically worked in development.
Many returning expats are struggling to get jobs, particularly of the same calibre they had overseas. They are finding the jobs they left in Australia were filled by others who are now further advanced in their careers.
They will often need to take a lower-level job in Australia to get their careers going again.
“They will be judged on what they have achieved on returning to the [Australian] market. They will be equated with those that are at the same skill level in the market,” says Melissa Reilly, a director of the Capstone Recruitment Group.
“For example, if they do a billion dollar project offshore, then they come back to Australia and work on a smaller project at the level that they left Australia on, they won’t be considered ahead of others because of that billion dollar offshore project.”
Specific skills needed
Stephen Lording, managing director at Judd Farris, says the CVs of some return expats “looked a lot heavier than they really were and that was quickly found out upon their return”.
While they might have had major roles in property developments, particularly in the Middle East, a lot of these projects never got off the ground, leaving the expats without the experience they might have been hoping for.
“There were a lot of people that may have left here and taken significant jumps in title on their CV, but the reality is that they didn’t actually deliver anything because a lot of those projects got kyboshed before they actually got built,” he says.
The exception where expats are in demand is when they have gained very specific skills or experiences needed for a particular local role.
Lording says one of his clients had to look offshore for a project director for a $5 billion hospital development in Western Australia because there hadn’t been a recent hospital project of that size in Australia.
Any skills and experience relating to the mining and resources sector are in hot demand, in sharp contrast to the rest of the property sector. Indeed, latest official data shows construction work done in the first quarter of 2012 rose an apparently healthy 5.5 percent.
But a closer look reveals that a 13 percent surge in mining-driven engineering work offset a large fall in non-residential construction and a more modest drop in home building.
While overseas experience will rarely provide any immediate career boost upon returning, in the longer term it can help round out experience and a CV.
“A progressive employer will look at an overseas experience that has coincided with a person’s professional development as a positive thing. So the opportunity to see the property industry in another culture should lead to a more rounded professional,” says Hay’s Little.
Reilly agrees that offshore experience will pay off in the long run, particularly for those with real estate investment experience.
“As Australia becomes more of a focus for international investment, as it will over the next five to 10 years, those who have come back from offshore will be valuable because they have a philosophy about real estate investment that mirrors the rest of the world, which is more aggressive and trading in and out of real estate,” she says.
Luke Mackintosh returned in 2009 from China, where he had been working on transactions with Ernst and Young before activity ground to a halt in the wake of the 2008 Lehman Brothers collapse.
Now a director with E&Y’s real estate group, Mackintosh says living and working in Beijing was “a great experience”, but acknowledges, “it probably set my career back a little bit”.
“It took me out of the Australian market for three and a half years, so you lose a lot of contacts and you lose a lot of momentum in your own practice,” he says.
Mackintosh expects the experience will improve his employability over the long term. “It opened up my eyes a lot to different markets and different cultures and different ways of doing things and also the contacts I’ve made overseas I’m still using and still working in Asia,” he says.
In China there were fewer people to seek advice from, so Mackintosh says he learned to back his own judgement more. He was also dealing with more senior property executives, such as chief executives and chairmen looking to get into China, than he would have in Australia, which he says improved his marketing skills. “It was a great experience. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Jones has similar sentiments.
“It was a very big challenge, but a rewarding one,” he says. “It basically opened up my eyes to the rest of the world, that Australia is very small compared to the rest of the global economy.”