East Europe beckons, but will it ever pay?

In the 19th century the advice was to 'go West'. Today the excitement is in the other direction.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Fortune seekers in the mid-19th century were urged: "Go west, young man, go west." Those looking for excitement, though not perhaps immediate wealth, might today consider going east.

With the old Soviet empire gradually falling into Western orbit, many states in the former Eastern bloc are suffering a traumatic transition from a command to a market economy and are keen to use Western skills to help.

Accountants, marketers and senior managers are all needed, as are people with practical skills ranging from electrical engineering to brick laying. But while some nations are keenly looking for additional skills, and would like more if they could afford them, others are reluctant to issue work permits to foreigners when struggling with domestic unemployment.

"The major consideration is that it is very difficult to pay these people," said Ivan Lancaric, counsellor at the Slovak Embassy. "Local salaries are not very interesting for them. Everyone who brings their know-how, such as British executives and retired professionals who are willing and able to offer their skills, is very welcome."

Romania is one of the countries keenest for Western skills, not least for its state-owned corporations, which are to be privatised. The Romanian Embassy recommends anyone with strong business skills interested in working for one of the corporations to send their CV direct to the enterprises. Private companies, too, may be enthusiastic to employ Westerners with business experience. The best way of contacting them, suggests the embassy, is to place an advertisement in one of the country's national newspapers, such as Romania Libera.

Poland is economically more advanced, but the Polish Embassy also suggests placing, and looking for, advertisements in the national press. Opportunities are most likely in the banking, electronics and service sectors. However, it may be difficult to obtain a work permit unless you can prove you have specialist skills. The Czech, Slovak and Estonian embassies made the same point.

It is also difficult to obtain a work permit for Hungary. Conditions are relaxed, though, for people going there to start their own businesses. English teachers, executives, accountants and senior bankers should find permits easy to obtain. Business jobs are often handled by recruitment agencies, a list of which can be obtained from the embassy.

In most countries, there are more opportunities with Western corporations that have established themselves in new markets than in local businesses. "There are a number of British consultancy firms in various areas such as engineering, auditing and valuation, which are employing in Poland," said Peter Kozerski, head of the commerce desk at the Polish Embassy.

In Central Asia - Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan - there are virtually no employment opportunities other than those offered by Western corporations. Overwhelmingly these are oil and gas companies with large-scale exploration activities. But BP- Amoco, which has a major presence in Azerbaijan, said it would not recruit Westerners specially for these projects, but would relocate existing employees. Other companies, such as BG, also prefer to run new operations with experienced staff initially, before replacing them with locals.

Russian companies were keen employers of Westerners until the economic collapse. Now most are unable to afford to pay decent salaries. David Cant, director of the Russian-British Chamber of Commerce, says recent graduates who speak Russian can often get work experience there. A good job on return to Britain may compensate for the lack of pay. "If people have the wherewithal to get themselves out to Russia they will find work- placement jobs with either Russian or Western companies,"says Mr Cant. "These may lead to proper jobs. We also take on people on a round-the- year basis to provide work experience in our London or Moscow offices. Once you have proved you have the resources and initiative to get out there, [British] companies are much keener to look at you."

Another option is to try to gain employment with aid agencies or through Western government-funded donor programmes. Peter Milford is currently working in Macedonia, where he is helping to create a support framework for locally created small- and medium-sized enterprises. The European Commission can provide a list of consultancies doing work under its Phare programme, some of which are usually seeking new staff.

Mr Milford says that there are up to 30 consultants working in each of the former Soviet countries - with the exception of Russia, where there are far more - but there is ashortage of people with the right balance of skills and self-reliance. Salaries are good by Western standards, and the cost of living can be low. Ability to speak local languages is helpful, but usually not essential. In some programmes it is necessary to speak Russian.

It is important to note that the needs of former-Soviet states are changing. "At the beginning it was about creating stock exchanges, a banking system, those type of infrastructural matters," says Mr Milford. "Now it is much more about small businesses and social issues, including coping with the problems caused in the introduction of capitalism. Unemployment was illegal under the old system, now it is high. You have social problems from that which have to be tackled."