The Washington DC job market is unique in the US. Nowhere else in the country is such a high percentage of the workforce employed by the government. In 2010, the last year for which I was able to find data, 38% of workers living in Washington DC said they worked for federal or local government; more than a quarter of Maryland and Virginia workers were also government employees. The other key sectors driving the local job market are technology, construction, international business and hospitality.
This government and service-sector oriented job market creates some major challenges for expatriate spouses. Federal jobs are only open to US citizens. Usually, if a job requires a security clearance, it will also require US citizenship. Working as a contractor or consultant to the federal government, rather than a regular status employee, may be an option. On the other hand, many local government jobs are open to non-US citizens so this might be a good place to look.
The role networking and personal contacts play in job searches
Regardless of industry, expats, whether newly-arrived or even months or years into their Washington DC tour, face additional challenges due to the role that networking and personal contacts play in the job search process in the US. Of course some people are lucky enough to land a job by responding to an advertised vacancy or through a headhunter or recruitment agency. But here, to a far greater extent than in many other Western economies, networks and relationships can play a critical role in finding work in your professional area. In a survey of members conducted by IMFFA in early 2015, more than half the currently-employed respondents to the survey indicated that they had found their position through personal contacts.
Americans well understand the value of building and nurturing connections and friendships, and do so almost unconsciously, throughout their professional lives. As an expat who is seeking work now, or plans to look for work in the future, one of the most important things you can do is to start to build your local networks.
How to start building your local networks
There are many ways to do this. Volunteering for causes you care about is a great way to start. Organizations such as the Taproot Foundation (https://www.taprootfoundation.org) provide a means for passionate and well-qualified volunteers to share their expertise with nonprofits and organizations committed to social change. In return for giving their time, volunteers increase their understanding of the US business environment, make professional connections and maintain and build their professional skills. Volunteering with IMFFA is another way to gain introductions to and build friendships with professionals from many walks of life and many countries. And it’s fun too!
Self-employment is another alternative to seeking a “regular” job in corporate America, or in the sprawling and often confusing bureaucracy of government. An internet connection can link you to customers anywhere in the world. Technology has opened up opportunities that didn’t exist 10, or even 5 years ago, to create virtual businesses for which geographic location no longer matters. Of course it takes a great deal of discipline and self-motivation to grow a business from scratch, even one that builds on a hobby or passion! But many people have successfully established themselves as “suitcase entrepreneurs”, running their business from their laptop whilst traveling the world. In the case of Washington-based expats, the business you build here can move with you to the next posting, or serve to keep you connected to your home country and professional community in ways that a local job never will. Or if you’re not quite ready to branch out on your own, then platforms like Upwork (https://www.upwork.com) that connect freelancers to teams and projects all over the world offer another way to work that is location-independent.
If you’ve thought about starting your own business, whether it’s selling a unique line of jewelry, travel writing or business consulting, there is a wealth of information available online – just google <suitcase entrepreneur> or <global nomad> to find out about communities, conferences and resources to help launch yourself into cyberspace! Keep an eye on the IMFFA notices as well – we’re planning local events with prominent speakers in this area to help inform and advise members who’d like to explore cyber-working options.
So there are a few ideas for thinking outside of the employment box. Above all, finding work during your time in the US is about being flexible, open to new ideas, persistent and thick-skinned. It might not happen right away, but if you stick at it, something is bound to work out eventually! And when it does, please tell us about it. Chronicles would love to hear about your employment successes (and failures if you’re willing – we can all learn from those too!). Just drop the editor a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Gallup Daily Tracking: January – June 2010
 City-Data.com: Cities of the United States: Washington DC: Economy