When Robyn Hestness graduated from the University of Minnesota, she went out into a tough economy and found a job. In Mexico.
And it was easy, said Hestness, who located several positions simply by word of mouth.
Hestness is among a growing number of recent college grads — most in their mid-20s and early 30s — who are leaving the United States to meet a rising demand in foreign countries for their skills: teaching English.
After a year spent managing a café in Minneapolis, Hestness wanted a more meaningful job. “I just moved down here….Before long I found a job,” said Hestness, who at one point taught a class of 77 students in Cuernavaca, a town about an hour and a half south of Mexico City.
A key reason for the growth in these teaching positions is that as previously under-developed nations enter the global economy, they need English — and therefore English teachers — simply to compete.
“English is a means of economic empowerment, and the importance of that is only increasing,” said Dahm Choi, an administrator for the Boston-based WorldTeach Organization, a group that helps send educators overseas on a volunteer basis. “As a result, we’re seeing more requests from host countries.”
Foreign demand for English teachers comes at a time when the domestic economy is slumping and good jobs for fresh grads are hard to come by in the United States. Beyond economics, several organizations that send educators to foreign countries say young people are also attracted to life in a foreign land.
But because job placement organizations are seeking to swiftly meet the demand for English teachers, educators are often sent off with little or no classroom training. And when they return to the United States with no official certifications on their résumés, many teachers — who’d hoped their experiences abroad would lead to jobs here — find it difficult to start a career back home.
Demand and supply
In 2002, after a tenure teaching English in South Korea, Ben Glickman founded Footprints Recruiting, an agency that recruits ESL (English as a second language) providers. In its first year, Footprints helped send 50 teachers abroad; in 2008, they expect to place more than 1,000.
“There’s been an exponential increase in applicants in the last few years,” Glickman said, reporting that his firm receives around 70 applications each day. Footprints, headquartered in Canada but drawing heavily from all over North America, is the largest independent recruiter for ESL teachers in the world, and works with the ministries of education in Taiwan and South Korea.
Choi of WorldTeach said that there is a growing interest in experiencing work outside the United States. “We’ve recently seen a much greater interest in international volunteering,” said Choi. “And we want to continue to promote world service. In American society, it seems the notion is growing that worldly service is good for adopting a larger perspective of life in general.”
WorldTeach has about 300 instructors abroad, but by August they expect to have more than 500 on assignment — the most the organization has ever worked with in its 21-one year history.
According to an article in OnPhilanthropy, members of Generation Y (born between 1977 and 1995) are “eagerly on the lookout for new, often socially-focused opportunities. Many graduates consider nonprofit work and service trips abroad to be just as valuable to their future careers as a high-paying job at a Fortune 500 firm.”
A 2007 survey by Deloitte, in which 1,000 Americans between the ages of 18 and 26 were interviewed, found that “rather than donating money, or coaching a team, Gen Y feels that they can have the largest impact through donation of knowledge and skills.”
Of course, altruism isn’t only one reason prospective teachers pack their bags.
“A lot of people in their 20s and early 30s find us because they’re looking for career changes or they find it difficult now to get a job here because of the current economy,” said Dave Houle, Program Director for TESOL Training International (TTI), another organization that finds jobs abroad for teachers.
As much as TTI recruits on college campuses and in organic food stores (which they do), many people actively seek out the firm, primarily through its posts on community websites such as Craigslist and Kijiji.
Like Footprints and WorldTeach, TTI has seen its enrollment numbers escalate. Based in San Diego, with satellites nationwide, the company recently opened branches in Boston and Seattle, and plans to open a New York office later this year.
Because most programs offer one- or two-year renewable contracts, Houle said, they are attractive options for young people who want to go to graduate school, but not immediately, or for those who want to get work experience and spend time in foreign countries.
Most participants regard their tenures as temporary. “The majority don’t become professional educators,” said Choi of WorldTeach. “This is simply an experience they’re seeking.”
Unlike domestic programs such as Teach for America, which help participants obtain teaching qualifications, typically the most participants can hope to come away with from a teach-abroad experience is ESL certification.
Some programs, like TTI, require their teachers to get certified. Others, such as WorldTeach, require only a bachelor’s degree for their year-long placements. Still more programs have no mandates except that participants be native speakers of English.
After graduating from the University of Iowa, Katherine Bisanz has spent two years teaching in Madrid, in a half-dozen different schools, but “not once been asked for any type of certification. The demand for native English speakers is so high that it appears they couldn’t care less about certifications,” she said.
Some English teachers say they wish they’d had more training before going abroad:
“Up through sixth grade, I think any native, or native-level, speaker of English can teach,” said Nick Plimpton, who works for the Japan Exchange Teaching (JET) and teaches students ranging from pre-school to ninth grade. “For the older years, however, I think some training would have helped me…it can be difficult to explain why grammar works the way it does. As a native speaker, I know what’s correct and what isn’t, but I can’t always explain why it’s so.”
Working afterward (if possible)
Aaron Madlon-Kay graduated from the University of Wisconsin with degrees in Japanese and physics and has spent nearly two years in Ikata for JET. In addition to teaching, he is proficient enough in Japanese to perform duties such as translating and interpreting. Later this year, he will travel with a group of his students to Ikata’s sister school in Red Wing, Minn., and act as translator.
“I applied to JET because I wanted to work in Japan and use my Japanese skills,” he wrote via email. “Like many CIRs [coordinator in international relations] I was hoping to use JET as a stepping stone to something better, [but] my placement (a small, rural town) hasn’t really helped with connections or relevant experience…”
For those who return home, the job search can be tough, in part because of a stagnant U.S. economy. A February study by MonsterTrak, a California-based career development website, found that only 59 percent of the 1,200 employers surveyed planned to hire 2008 graduates this summer, down 17 percent from last year. Another 29 percent reported they were unsure if they would hire the recent grads or not.
In addition, English teachers who worked outside the United States find that even with formal ESL training, their credentials have little currency within the United States.
Bisanz wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after her time in Madrid, but hoped to come away with a marketable résumé. While she’s been offered positions in Spain, prospects back home are slim.
“As for options in the States, I’ve really got nothing right now,” she said. “I’ve applied to a few non-profits, but have yet to hear back from them. And it’s been a really, really long time.”
Hestness, the University of Minnesota grad working in Mexico, plans to leave that country, a necessary step, she said, to further her professional life. “Leaving was a very difficult decision for me,” she said. “I have a life here. I have a great apartment, many friends, a boyfriend, and a bunny…but I feel I need to move forward and pursue my career.”
Still, she doesn’t have anything lined up in the United States, and acknowledged she will probably have to go back to school before landing the job she really wants.
Max Ross is a freelance writer in the Twin Cities. His work has appeared in Minnesota Monthly, The Rake, and Reveille, and he runs the books blog, “Cracking Spines” for rakemag.com.