Amit spent several happy years at a small international school in Eastern Europe. When it was time to move on, he found something a little different in an Asian mega-city. On top of it being a move with more professional opportunities, Amit thought it would offer great financial benefits. After all, conventional wisdom tells us that Asia is cheaper to live in than Europe, and his new salary was significantly higher than he had been earning. Unfortunately, a few months in, Amit realized that he was struggling to make ends meet. After trading his European bike paths for daily Ubers, paying premium prices for the Western foods he was used to, and supplementing his housing allowance to obtain a few extra square meters, Amit was putting less into savings each month than he used to. And he’d barely even taken a vacation yet! He was ready to leave for his next post as soon as his contract allowed.
Tracey had a teaching job in her home country. She loved working with kids, but the stress was high, and her salary didn’t stretch far. Her cosmopolitan, college friend, Huda, suggested she explore working internationally. Huda reported that the bank she worked for offered amazing packages to employees on international assignments, and she’d heard that teachers could find the same in schools catering to expats. Tracey registered with a couple of recruiting agencies, and in due course, her impressive interviews resulted in two job offers. Tracey was disappointed with what she saw. The salaries were much lower than she was already earning. Both offered housing allowances, but the amounts seemed paltry compared to what she was used to paying in rent. Information about taxes was confusing. How was it possible that she wouldn’t have hundreds deducted by the government each month? Where were the supposed amazing benefits? Tracey decided to stay home rather than move abroad; it wasn’t worth the trouble if it didn’t at least alleviate her financial struggles.
Where did Amit and Tracey go wrong? Or was something missing in the recruiting process?
In today’s info-laden digital world, it often seems that the answer to every question is a few clicks away. Amit and Tracey could have researched more into the cost of living and the value of their packages. However, not everyone is comfortable discussing or even contemplating money, and even fewer are confident in the financial skills needed to analyze packages with multiple, complex variables for housing, taxation, and allowances, plus different costs of living and different currencies. Professional educators they may be, but no one trained them in finance!
It’s not just teachers who miss opportunities. Amit and Tracey both have much to offer to an international school. Every time someone like Amit leaves after just one contract, every time someone like Tracey says a misguided “no” to a job offer, schools lose out. No recruiter wants to see a valuable candidate walk away over a very preventable misunderstanding.
Recruiting agencies have, for this very reason, made efforts for decades to help candidates understand the packages on offer. Information about saving potential, tax status, and various benefits are required by many agencies for all registered schools. But candidates view this information skeptically, particularly about saving potential. Many suspect that schools paint a rosy picture in order to attract more candidates. A minority feel that schools downplay savings potential so as to avoid disappointed and disgruntled employees. In my view, no one and everyone is right. The question of how much an employee can save is the very definition of an unanswerable question. My experience with recruiters, from both sides of the table, is that they do their best to provide accurate information but are faced with an impossible task. As the academic director at the International School of Kazan, I spent four years collecting data that supports this viewpoint. I introduced an annual survey of all expat teachers at the school, addressing a range of financial questions, to gather data to share with candidates as we recruited. Answers to some questions were fairly unified at our school. For example, most agreed on costs for transportation and how easy it would be for a single teacher to support a child. In many areas though, and particularly about savings potential, the range was very wide, from saving below US $500 to above US $4,500 per month for a teaching couple with two children. Answers on savings didn’t follow a predictable curve in any of the four years that teachers were surveyed, nor for any of the categories (single teacher, teaching couple with children, etc.). Typically, the distribution curves appeared to be fairly random, with two or three modes, or no clear pattern. I suspect, though haven’t yet had the opportunity to prove, that this wide range of savings potential would be common across most international schools.
This wide distribution of answers illustrates the conundrum we all face, candidates and recruiters (and schools and students) all benefit when accurate information is shared about finances. But there is no such beast as a single, accurate answer. Simply put, my habits for spending and saving are not the same as yours, and they never will be. Given the same salary package, we will end up with vastly different experiences and money in the bank at the end of the year.
In the face of such truths, there is clearly a problem with providing a single data point to recruiting agencies and candidates. There is no meaningful way to distill the range of truths into a single item; the average, highest, and lowest points are all almost useless on their own. This is true not only for savings potential but also for many other questions about what people “typically” do with their money.
One solution, and the one I am advocating for here, is to systematically collect information from your school’s teachers and present it to candidates visually, with basic commentary. If we let candidates see the range of truths, they can work out, better than we can, what it will mean for them as an individual. Questions can go well beyond the basic ideas presented in a recruiting profile and can be tailored to your context. Some of the following survey questions may be relevant to your school:
- How much do you spend on transportation each week?
- How much do you spend on groceries each week?
- How much do you spend on utilities each month? (The question could specify which utilities if that’s helpful.)
- How much do you spend on entertainment each week?
- How much do you spend on rent each month?
- What size apartment can be rented using the school housing allowance?
- Is life in [city] cheaper, more expensive, or about what you expected when you signed up?
- Do you save more, less, or about what you expected?
- Could a couple, or a single parent with one child, live here on a single salary? (Recommended answer choices: Yes, easily; Yes, with some planning; Yes, but it would be hard; No, not possible.)
- Could a couple with one or two children live here on a single salary? (Same recommended answer choices.)
- Are you required to pay income tax to your home country on your salary and benefits?
- Are you required to pay income tax to [host country] on your salary and benefits? (If the answer is yes, include answer choices that help candidates estimate how much.)
- How much could a single teacher save per month? (Plus related questions for teaching couples, etc. The questions and specific wording can match that used by your main recruiting agency.)
For all questions, provide a selection of answers rather than allowing open responses. Selected-response questions make it easier to analyze the data and present the answers in a clear and consistent manner. A short commentary on the data can provide context and insight, which will be greatly appreciated by candidates. Help them understand why an apparently small housing allowance is all that’s needed, or why people report vastly different costs for groceries.
You won’t necessarily want to ask all the questions listed above, nor to limit yourself only to those questions. Each school will want only the questions which are relevant to their context. The resulting report can be shared with all candidates by adding a link to your recruiting profile, and/or sharing links via email as recruiters communicate with candidates. If you would like a sample of what such a report looks like, please let me know. I’m always happy to share.
International school pay packages have been the source of many questions and even controversies over the years. These are often centered on questions of equity and/or cost, such as the differences between local and recruited packages, comparisons between salaries in international and national schools, and the costs to the school of hiring internationally with the perceived impact on tuition. Each school context is unique, and good school leaders are in tune with the concerns of their various communities. If your community has political undercurrents related to finances, choose your questions with special care. Even so, it should be possible to survey your expat teachers on many of the questions identified above. It is unlikely to be controversial, for example, to find out whether teachers are saving more, less, or about what they expected, nor to explore the range of costs for transportation. Choose those questions which will be relevant and helpful, and consider whether some sunlight on the data might foster clarifying and unifying conversations.
After four years of gathering such data, and sharing it widely with candidates, it is clear that candidates find this information highly valuable. They have provided very positive feedback on the transparency and utility, and report that our effort increased their trust and interest in our school. Teachers at the school have also been very generous in completing the survey repeatedly, with near total participation each year. They are keen to share their insights with potential new colleagues. Recruiters indicated it was easier to recruit when they used this report as part of the process.
Candidates need good information on the financial implications of a potential move. It’s relatively easy to provide it and results in a smoother recruiting process. It won't solve all of the hurdles that come with international recruiting. However, the benefits add an undeniable layer of transparency and trust.
Diana Rosberg supports international schools, and their leaders, as an independent consultant. She also works part-time at Oberoi International School in Mumbai, India.
LinkedIn: Diana Rosberg
Email: [email protected]
School’s website: https://iskazan.com/
Facebook: International School of Kazan