MOSCOW BLOG: Best-paid expats live in Russia, but try getting a job

By bne IntelliNews September 7, 2010

Rachel Morarjee in Moscow -

Your job going nowhere in London or New York? Move to Moscow and make a mint. A new survey by the bank HSBC has found that expatriates living in Russia are the wealthiest in the world, with 36% earning more than a quarter of a million dollars. But trying to join their ranks will be harder than you think.

Fifteen years ago, young expats with a good head on their shoulders who rocked up in Moscow speaking reasonable Russian could take their pick of jobs. With the Russian economy growing much faster than those in the West, they could find themselves managing a company at a time when they might still be making coffee and doing photocopies in an office back home. No longer: companies in Russia, whether local or foreign, are increasingly hiring Russian managers to run their businesses and only recruiting expats for specialist roles.

The opportunity at the junior and middle level of management has been all but eliminated and foreigners are largely now only hired for these jobs if they know how to live in Russia, speak the language and do not present large relocation costs, say businessmen in Moscow. "I am a skeptic about hiring expats in Russia," says Bernard Sucher, entrepreneur and one of the founders of Starlight diners and investment bank Troika Dialog. "It used to be that you could more reliably depend on expats to understand what the end experience was supposed to be like, whether you were running a brokerage or a restaurant."

That is no longer the case. As Russian consumers have become more sophisticated, they now understand what customers want, leaving headhunters seeking talent from a growing cadre of Russian managers who have either worked abroad or for foreign companies operating in Russia.

Igor Klimov, general director of executive search firm Acuris, which finds managers for international companies in the fast moving consumer goods sector, suggests it's much easier for Russians to build trust with both other employees and other companies. "Expats are still needed in the investment field, but in the real economy we get almost no requests for expat managers," he notes.

Sucher says that the most sought-after employees are those Russians who have worked abroad; they understand the demands of the international market, but are also adept at negotiating the cultural tides of business on the ground.

However, companies have to pay a sizeable premium to attract such Russians back to the country, and there are not enough of them to meet the demand for experienced managers across the economy. Despite the global economic crisis and its lingering effects on western economies, many expat Russians remain reluctant to commit themselves and their families to return. This leaves openings for expats in key areas. From international law and banking to software project management, there is still demand for specialized western managers to fill specific roles. "For instance, a small company wanting to transition to a medium-sized business will often find value in an expat manager who has walked that walk before and has the skills to make it happened again." says Sucher.

Face valaue

Meanwhile, for Russian firms looking for the stamp of respectability in international markets, expat hires are still key to reassuring foreign investors that the company is not mired in corruption.

Before 2008, Russian companies looking to raise money through an IPO or a bond deal needed lawyers trained in English law who could talk to investment bankers in the US and UK, says Nikita Prokofiev, partner at Odgers Berndtson.

Though such deals have slowed to a trickle, any company in Russia wanting to meet international compliance standards still needs to hire foreign lawyers, although with fewer Russian companies raising money overseas that's less important right now than it was. "The real demand now is for Russian lawyers with international experience, as the downturn has left companies wrestling with bankruptcies, arbitration and local disputes," says Prokofiev.

As capital markets bounce back, the demand for foreign-trained lawyers will pick back up, and for those lawyers that do find work in Moscow, promotion is much faster than at home. "Many lawyers I know have told me at home I would be one of a hundred people and all the top seats were occupied, but here I am a star," says Prokofiev.

Another area where expatriate professionals can command good salaries and attractive packages is project management in the software sector. Russia has a wealth of highly trained software programmers, but project and business managers with more than 10 years experience are few and far between. "The Russians that exist in those arenas can have their pick of jobs anywhere," says Esther Dyson, chairman of EDventure Holdings and an active investor in IT start-ups in the US and Europe, adding that companies in Russia wanting to attract such staff from abroad have to pay more, offer interesting projects and have a good reputation.

So while Russia may indeed have the best paid expat jobs, those filling those posts tend to know the country well, speak the language or offer some unusual skill that companies can't find at home. Once Russian companies start to expand more overseas, there will be more demand for foreign managers, says Klimov from Acuris. Until then, however, Russia won't offer an easy opportunity for professionals looking to escape the drudgery of a job in London or New York.

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