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The downsides of being an expat in Australia

Think working in Australia will be all beers in the sun and after-work surfing? You may be surprised.

For Gigi Foster, the move to Australia was not as smooth as she expected.

“I almost needed a translation guide when I got off the plane,” says Foster, a consultant and academic who emigrated from the US to Sydney. “I was used to being forthright in meetings. That works in the US, but how you interact with your work colleagues in Australia is very different.

She migrated to the land down under several years ago after working her way through university posts at Yale and Maryland. She jumped at the chance to take up a position at an Australian university, where she is now an associate professor. “Many people told me that Sydney was all about the beach and surfing” she said, “but it’s not. It’s about putting in the hours and hard word in a new culture that seems similar, but works in subtly different ways. It’s not an easy transition.”

People told me that Sydney was all about the beach and surfing. But it’s not - Gigi Foster She moved to Australia hoping for both a lifestyle change and a move up the career ladder, like thousands of professionals who have headed to Australia, drawn by its sunshine and beaches. For many, the move is part of a lifestyle change, to a continent which is often viewed as an easy place to work and live. However, many migrants have found the working culture starkly different to what they expected.

Working life

Although not as permanently sunny as television shows like Home and Away portray, the warm climate makes Australia a hotspot for global professionals hoping to combine a new job with the beachside lifestyle found in most of the country’s largest cities. This year, Australia is offering up to 190,000 migration places for people looking to move there.

Foster is one of fewer than 100,000 expats in Australia who have arrived from the United States. The largest group of expats in Australia come from the UK, at more than 1.2 million.

She first arrived in Australia in 2005, before leaving and returning in 2007. She gained dual Australian/US citizenship five years ago. Foster initially thought she had arrived in an easy-working country, as staff would leave their office earlier than she expected.

“However, it was because they arrived so early. Then on a Friday they head out to the pub with the boss. So working hours are actually longer.”

It’s important to socialise with your colleagues outside the office, Foster says

Despite a permanent visa, many new expats may not get to enjoy the surf. She warns that the traffic can make a commute into Sydney hideous. To dodge the jams, many workers drive into the office very early.

You need to socialise with your manager and workmates

She has also found there is a much more casual way of working, without the hierarchical structures she was used to in the US, and outside of the office you need to socialise with your manager and workmates. “If you just go home at the end of the day, you won’t get promotion. There’s a covert system of mateship.”

Lost in translation

Many expats in Australia – especially those from the US – can find there are nuances in the language of business that can take some getting used to.

“Managers have an indirect way of talking to direct reports.” she said. “As an expat you quickly find small differences which assume huge importance. It’s a steep learning curve.” “If your manager said they want to mention something ‘incidentally’, you must understand it is primary purpose of the discussion,” she said. As well, “if they want to ‘briefly consider other options’, immediately scrap what you are working on and start again.”

Don’t big yourself up. Aussies hate what they call ‘tall poppies’ at work, who get cut down to size - Gigi Foster

She has found self-depreciation in the office essential. “Don’t big yourself up. Aussies hate what they call ‘tall poppies’ at work, who get cut down to size.”

James Cridland, who migrated to Brisbane from London, agrees the language is a barrier. Brisbanites talk about being ‘rorted’ (scammed), feeling ‘crook’ (unwell), and buying ‘Manchester’, which means bedding. “Even going out for a beer means drinking schooners, not pints,” he said, having assumed Australians would speak the same tongue, “but ‘strine [Australian English] is very confusing. Maybe it is because it is so distant from the rest of the world.”

Taking leave

Four weeks of annual leave is the norm, unlike in Europe where the legal minimum is five for countries like France, Denmark and Sweden. However, Australia is unusual in that some employers allow workers to roll over leave continually from one year to the next. Data from Australian market research company Roy Morgan indicates that the average employee has banked up three weeks of annual leave, typically because their company discourages long breaks. Institutions often mandate using a week of annual leave for Christmas, leaving just three weeks, of which workers are expected to only take only two.

Visiting friends and family back home can eat up a lot of leave too – expats from Europe and the US have a long way to travel if they want to take a trip back.

Business travel, too, can be arduous. Brisbane-based Cridland is a media consultant and he’s found he treats planes like buses. “I jump on a long haul flight frequently. Last week it was 15 hours to Los Angeles for a meeting. The distance is a tyranny for many expats.” Expats from Europe or the US have to take long-haul flights to get to their home countries

Doing your homework

The golden sands of Australia are a major draw for many migrants, but Darrell Todd, who founded migration consultancy thinkingaustralia to help professionals obtain work visas, has a warning for potential new arrivals: “Do your homework.”

Often migrants contact him from Qantas’ check in at Heathrow or JFK, asking about visas – after they’ve sold their house and packed up their life. “Australia used to be easy – turn up and work. Not anymore. It’s really tightened up.”

This year 44,000 ‘Skilled Independent’ visas will be granted to workers assessed using points for education or experience. Extra points are given to those with in-demand skills, such as auditors and accountants.

But, Todd adds, previous experience may not count for much, with many Australian companies preferring skills learnt at home. “Be prepared to take a step down the career ladder.”

Those failing the skills test try and grab one of 48,000 ‘Employer Sponsored’ visas. He said it’s a genuine pathway to work in Australia. “But if the company downsizes, you’re first out, and have to leave Australia, unless you quickly find another sponsoring employer.”

Grass is greener?

Cridland cautions that Australia may not be the transition to an easy lifestyle many expats expect. “You’d be making a mistake leaving London for Sydney, imagining your life will improve, swapping one place where costs and stress are enormous, for another.”

But it can depend on where in Australia you live, he says. Cridland feels Brisbane is starkly different to Sydney. “There’s a community feel – you assimilate quickly. Brisbane even has an artificial beach for office workers’ lunchtime dip.”

Despite the unexpected hardships, Gigi Foster can’t imagine living anywhere else. “It’s hard work to assimilate to a new country – but worth it in the end.”

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Originally published: www.bbc.com

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