Dec. 6, 2011 at 10:28 AM ET
NEW YORK — Derek Capo was living the high life. He was in his early 20s, an analyst at hedge fund Everest Capital monitoring international equities, and soaking up the weather and nightlife of his hometown of Miami.
But looking ahead, as he'd been trained to do, Capo didn't like what he saw. The housing bust was starting to strangle the Florida economy, the stock market was looking increasingly erratic and he didn't want to pursue a pricey MBA in the middle of an economic crisis.
He also wanted to test his entrepreneurial muscles, by starting his own business, ideally in a locale that felt economically vibrant, with seemingly limitless possibilities. To do that, Capo left the U.S. in 2007.
He now lives in Beijing, having founded Next Step China. The firm offers Chinese-language immersion programs, and arranges opportunities for foreigners to teach, intern or volunteer in China. "I wanted to take the next step in my life and career," says Capo, now 29. "I connected the dots and decided that I should go somewhere different and learn something new, like Mandarin, to challenge myself. I picked China because it was growing so fast."
It's a curious phenomenon that sends Americans abroad to look for work. The U.S. has traditionally skimmed the best minds from around the world in pursuit of the American Dream. Indeed, according to polling firm Gallup, which surveyed people in 135 nations around the world, the U.S. was the top desired destination of those who wanted to relocate permanently to another country.
But with unemployment hovering around 9 percent, the use of food stamps at record highs and the Great Recession continuing to punish the budgets of so many families, the American economy is much less of a magnet. To some young entrepreneurs, economic possibilities seem brighter in places like Brazil, Russia, China or Latin America. Indeed, the State Department now estimates that 6.3 million Americans are studying or working abroad, the highest number on record.
In fact, according to a survey by marketing consultants America Wave, the percentage of Americans aged 25 to 34 actively planning to relocate outside the U.S. has quintupled in just two years, from less than 1 percent to 5.1 percent. "Those numbers have shot through the ceiling," says America Wave founder Bob Adams, who has run nine such surveys over the years. "They're very surprising, and not something I anticipated. They're looking for work because of the sluggish economy, and they've lost confidence that the U.S. is going anywhere."
Younger Americans seem even keener to look abroad, with 40 percent of those 18-24 expressing interest in foreign relocation, which is up from 15 percent two years ago. "There's a feeling among more entrepreneurial Americans that if you really want to get anything done, you have to get out of country and away from the depressing atmosphere," says Adams, who lives in Panama. " There's a sense of lost direction, so more people are looking for locations that offer more hope about the future."
Just ask Matt Landau, who also lives in Panama. The 29-year-old graduated from the University of Richmond in Virginia before moving "in search of work, a better economy, and a more fulfilling lifestyle," he says. While many of his economics-major buddies are trying to avoid Wall Street layoffs, he set up a travel and investment blog and runs a boutique hotel he fixed up in the historic district of Panama City.
But he now knows that moving abroad won't automatically lead to a life of wine and roses. Every country comes with challenges, including barriers of culture, language, bureaucracy, and economic troubles of its own. "Embrace the hurdles, as they're part of the journey," Landau says. "If you don't embrace them, they'll suffocate you."
Indeed, such a major life decision isn't to be taken lightly. It's a daring chess move for your career, but sometimes risky moves can backfire, as well. "That's why you need to create a plan for your period abroad," says Alexandra Levit, a career expert and author of books like New Job, New You. "Know in advance how long you are going to stay, and what you intend to accomplish during that time. Make sure the job you take will allow you to learn transferable skills that are relevant across a variety of roles and industries."
In-demand skills include IT, engineering and teaching. You can search for international jobs at familiar sites like Monster or Craigslist, or increasingly via social media like LinkedIn. There are also countless local job sites, depending on the particular country you're targeting; visit TransitionAbroad to search by region or profession. Every country has its own work-visa requirements, of course, so do your due diligence at the State Department's terrifically thorough website for Americans traveling abroad.
More tips from Levit: Don't underestimate the costs of relocating abroad (including healthcare coverage), which can be substantial. Choose a location where you have some existing contacts and a potential support system, otherwise you could begin to feel isolated and depressed. And continue to cultivate your network back in the States, so that when you do come back home, the transition will be relatively seamless.
Or you might find that you really enjoy your new life abroad, and want to stay. For Matt Landau, it's now been six years, and he still hasn't tired of a lifestyle that includes plentiful surfing and snorkeling. "I don't regret leaving the States one bit," he says. "But when I do get homesick, I just hop on a five-hour flight back to the East Coast. It's like living in California -- except no one knows who Herman Cain is."