If you graduated with a degree in Criminology, Sociology, or Art History – otherwise known as ‘Bachelors in Useless to Employers’ – from “No Name State University” with a GPA of 2.5 and $30,000+ of student loan debt, chances are you are facing a daunting and seemingly impenetrable job market. If you’re in your early twenties and missed out on gaining vital experience before the 2008 crash, conquering it may seem near impossible.
But it’s not. We have a solution to your exact predicament.
The main problem you are facing is that you put faith in an expensive institution to prepare you for the brutal realities of surviving in the private sector and you are suddenly realizing just how useless you are to employers.
Where are you useful and valuable as a twenty-something whose only skills are being able to speak English and use the internet?
The answer, in short, is as an English teacher in Asia.
Teaching English in Asia is full of Catch 22 situations. The problem is usually that it does not result in the acquisition of concrete, ‘real’ skills and private sector experience required to make progress. The ironic conclusion is, therefore, that the only thing you are going to learn from English teaching is how to teach English.
This career hacking blueprint is going to show you how to succeed in doing the following:
-Get a teaching job in Asia
-Destroy $30,000 or less of student loan debt within 3 years
-Gain useful digital skill sets that will be practical either as an entrepreneur or employee
-Become a freelancer or entrepreneur and avoid the need for employment in the first place
-Set yourself up as a candidate that employers back home will want to interview and hire upon completion of the blueprint
Choose A Destination
The first step is to choose what country you want to work in. If your priority is paying off debt as fast as possible then you should go for Korea, every time. Nowhere else is it easier to find a position paying enough to enable you to save at least $1000 per month. While it’s not as cheap as other cities in the region, the net amount of cash you’ll be able to save at the end of the month will probably be greater, thanks to comparatively high wages. Depending on your priorities and preferences, however, it’s certainly worth considering large cities in Thailand, Japan, Taiwan or Vietnam.
What now? Make a decision, bearing in mind both your financial position and how attractive you find each country across the social, cultural, political and economic spectrum. It’s a big decision – so do your research!
Get Rubber Stamped
Or rather, get certified and secure an official teaching job. How? Well, 90% of the battle in starting a career or venture in anything – particularly abroad – is just showing up. It’s certainly a rule of thumb for obtaining a teaching job. Even so, the higher level of development, the more likely it is that you will be able to find employment before you hit the ground.
If you are daring enough to head over to Asia prior to getting certified then it’s perfectly possible that you’ll succeed. Take your time in feeling out different places and understanding the ins and outs; it’s vitally important to know what you’re getting yourself into. Qualifying for TESOL, TEFL, CELTA or equivalent certificates locally is rarely a problem, and a presence on the ground will certainly give you opportunities to broker yourself into a paid position, as well as negotiate your salary.
What’s next? Carefully research and determine your plan of attack: what you will do when you arrive, and how you will land a job. And have Plans B, C and D ready to go.
Be Your Own Accountant
A crucial dimension of starting a new life anywhere is setting up a budgeting system based on your salary and living expenses. Your eventual goal is to eliminate student loan debt. How quickly you’ll be able to do this depends on the lifestyle you want to lead in the interim. Up to $30,000 can realistically be paid off completely in three years, particularly if you choose Korea. There are even cases of savvy career hackers that have successfully cleared $17,000 of debt in a year.
The downside with Korea is that you will be working longer and more strenuous hours than you would be in pretty much any other part of Asia. Thus, you’ll have less time to acquire skills and experience outside of the context of teaching. You will have to weigh your priorities. If you do not have student loan debt or do not care about getting rid of it right away then you should choose a place like Thailand or Vietnam.
You need to figure out how to baseline your expenses as low as possible, allowing you to take home more of your pay and whittle down your debts. Get creative in terms of hacking your budget, and really save money. Live with roommates, eat out at cheap local places, don’t go to the expensive clubs and minimise international travel. You can achieve the highest amount of savings in second tier Korean cities like Suwon, Incheon and Gwangju.
Depending on who you are and what you aim to achieve in the long run, you should actively seek or create business opportunities to run alongside your regular job – a startup, perhaps, or a part-time internship.
If launching a full-time career in Southeast Asia is what you want, you should use your time to find a foothold in the private sector. Use institutions (Chambers of Commerce, Consulates and so on) to your advantage. This way, you can gain much more than just teaching skills in your first year or two. You can start building a network and gaining localised work experience from the start.
Fiverr hustles are easy ways to get started; target the virtual market, people back home or even locals who may be interested in the services you can offer. While it might not make heaps of cash, it’ll nudge you in the right direction and give you experience in a low-pressure, low-risk startup environment.
Another area in which entrepreneurs are flourishing is in import/export businesses – see The Elevator Life and Original Grain.
As you become more familiar with outsourcing, automation, customer service, deliverables, marketing, sales and so on on a small scale, you can begin to move onto bigger things. But don’t expect it to be easy. The name of the game is failure, and you have to be prepared to try a few things to achieve success. Expect things to go wrong but learn quickly along the way and success will, eventually, be yours.
But wait! Slow down, you’re thinking. You don’t want to be pigeonholed into being a teacher forever, and perhaps you’re not the entrepreneurial type. Perhaps you want to come back to the US, UK, Canada, Australia etc. someday, live in a metropolitan city and begin a more traditional career.
So what do you do?
If you’re following this blueprint, you’ve chosen to independently acquire skills and develop yourself personally. Such an approach is all very well, but it’s not enough. Without a portfolio showcasing your value and qualifications to potential employers, you’ll have a hard time standing out.
You might only stay for a year, in which case you should aim to secure two six-month internships while constantly exploring scope for further involvement in the private sector. You’ll be in the perfect position to be recruited to the regional office of a multinational; from there, a transfer overseas back to your home country or elsewhere is fairly easily achieved.
Reverse Engineer the Position
Compile a list of very specific positions that you want to break into once you’re back home. If you’re keen on becoming a design whiz, perhaps, over 3 years living in Taiwan or similar – your list might look something like this:
Now you need to develop your talents. If you know where you want to be, you can reverse engineer the position and engineer yourself to get there.
Using the list you’ve made: look at the previous work experience required and the personal traits potential employers will be looking for. Look at hard technical skill sets they will want you to have developed and applied in real-life situations and environments. Take each criterion and mold yourself into the perfect candidate for the position in question.
How can you become that person? Well, get out there and start compiling a portfolio that highlights your abilities and provides proof of your technical prowess. Develop the self-discipline to learn and master specific (digital) skill sets. Build up your clientele – people who can vouch for you and provide testimonials to your abilities.
In fact, why not just email them and ask them – what kind of person do they want? If they were looking for a freelancer to take on a particular project, what experience would they be looking for? Previous work with SMEs or startups? Long term projects with multinationals? Contribution to open source material? Nine times out of ten, employers will be more than willing to tell you specifically what they’re looking for.
So: you now have a direction, a timeline and a goal: 2-3 years to pay off debts while becoming proficient in the relevant skill sets. Many jobs requiring digital skills will not require a Bachelor’s degree in the field – as long as you back your claims with relevant experience and a top-notch portfolio.
Get To Work
Let’s assume that within the first couple of years you have accomplished some (or all!) of the following:
Paid off student loan debts
Secured a full-time job offer that meets or exceeds your teaching income
Launched a successful venture that is on course to supply all your income
Your goal is thus not only to become a teacher and pay off debt, but to be able to replace your teaching occupation with entrepreneurship or an international career within 6-24 months. So, over your 3 year money-saving, debt-hacking mission, you’ll have to be diligent and focused. Even if all you know about computers is how to turn them on, with time and effort you’ll get better and be able to tackle more complex projects – as a developer, copywriter, designer, etc.
Constantly scour sites like Odesk, elance and fiverr in search of practical work. It’ll be lonely and difficult. Keep an eye out for talented people, hang out with them and pick their brains. Be persistent, stay alert and eventually you’ll be good enough and connected enough to launch your own projects, perhaps even turning a profit from them.
Obtain positive, credible reviews from your clients and make them visible on online profiles. Connect with clients on LinkedIn and request recommendations from them. In turn, their connections will notice you and may enquire about you if they need your services.
7. Bring In The Harvest
The long march is over. You are three years on now and have become proficient at whatever digital skill set(s) that you committed yourself to at the start. Hopefully (assuming you followed this blueprint) you’re free of the burden of your student loan debt.
And not only that. You’ve travelled across Asia and experienced the world while still young. You’ve witnessed the strange, the exotic and the beautiful. You’ve learned to speak a foreign language and connected with a diverse spectrum of interesting and talented individuals. You’ve taught yourself to be disciplined, you’re able to cope with failure and no longer depend on English teaching to pay the bills. You’re now making more money while working half as much, freelancing with your newly acquired digital skill sets. Maybe you’ve started your own design or copywriting company, incorporated it in Singapore and rubber stamped yourself as a bona fide entrepreneur.
In other words, you’re an accomplished and marketable individual. Now’s the time to take another look at the jobs you shortlisted earlier and begin applying for them again. Of course, that’s only if you still want to. Ideally, you’re making enough money freelancing to declare independence from the world of traditional employment entirely.
The choice is now yours.