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Overseas teaching jobs: a lesson in supply and demand

Ali Manek, 25, is a Teacher planning on working overseas in The United Arab Emirates.

At first, Grace Kim wasn't too worried about getting that overseas job.

In June, the 27-year-old Edmontonian applied for a position teaching English in South Korea, something she'd been considering for a year. As a Korean-Canadian with two university degrees under her belt, Ms. Kim felt pretty good about her chances.

She found a recruiting agency with several job openings and submitted her application 10 days before the posted deadline.

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But she was already too late.

"They said, 'Thanks for your interest but we've had an overflow of applicants because of the economic crisis. We've already filled our quota,'" Ms. Kim recalls.

She has yet to hear back from any other recruiting agencies and is starting to get anxious.

"My perception initially was that it would be super easy," she says. "I was ... surprised by how high their expectations were."

For aimless twentysomethings, going overseas to teach English has long been a popular layover between university and the dreaded "real world" - it offers good pay, decent work experience and the opportunity for plenty of alcohol-fuelled soul-searching in an exotic country.

Furthermore, English teachers have been high in demand over the past decade and jobs relatively easy to come by. But this year, a dwindling job market and sputtering economy has driven many recent grads to apply overseas, causing spots to fill up at record speeds.

"In the past, we'd still be hiring at this point but now we've shut everything down," says Shane Finnie, director of Canadian Connections, a Toronto-based recruiting agency for English teachers in Korea. "We've filled all our positions pretty much until the end of the year."

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Hess Education Canada, which recruits teachers for Taiwan and Singapore, reports that applications have doubled this year. At Teach Away, which is headquartered in Toronto and recruits English teachers for schools worldwide, they've seen a 400-per-cent increase in job applications since December, says director of business development David Frey.

"Yeah, it's been ridiculous. There's just tons and tons of people applying right now," Mr. Frey says. "I think a lot of it has to do with people getting antsy about the economy and saying, 'Listen, this is my time to go overseas. If I'm going to do it, I'll just do it now.'"

He says many applicants this year are teachers who can't find work with their local school boards.

Among them is 25-year-old Ali Manek, who will soon be moving with his wife to Abu Dhabi where he'll fulfill a two-year teaching contract.

The recent teacher's college graduate applied overseas when he realized he couldn't find work in Toronto, not even as a supply teacher. This will be his second time going abroad to teach English and Mr. Manek is excited about the adventures before him. Still, he is rueful about the lack of job options back home.

"I'm certainly relieved but at the same time, it's not ideal," he says. "Ideally, I would be at home, I would be in Toronto, I'd be working as was my plan when I decided to become a teacher five years ago."

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But many résumés this year are also coming from unexpected places, says Ben Glickman, co-owner of Footprints Recruiting, a placement agency based in Vancouver.

"Especially out of the States, you see a lot of economic casualties that used to work for companies like Wells Fargo and stuff like that," Mr. Glickman says. "We've certainly been seeing people from the financial industry apply that probably wouldn't have applied last year."

While jobs certainly haven't dried up - Mr. Glickman estimates he's hired 25 per cent more teachers this year than in 2008, as Asian parents continue pushing for their kids to learn English - positions at traditional teaching destinations, like Japan, Korea and Taiwan, have filled up faster than usual, shortening the recruitment cycle by about six weeks.

For those still determined to work overseas this year, he advises they be more flexible and expand their job searches to emerging markets in Southeast Asia and China, where opportunities still exist but likely at a lower pay grade. The Middle East is also an attractive option right now, says Mr. Frey, who's planning to hire about 400 teachers this month for the United Arab Emirates.

The bar also continues to rise for applicants, Mr. Glickman adds. Back in 1998, with little more than a bachelor's degree, Mr. Glickman got a job at a Korean college as a junior professor. Nowadays, he wouldn't even be considered for that job without a master's degree, he says.

More schools are also now requiring TESL accreditation, he adds, referring to an additional teaching accreditation program.

"In years past, this has been an extremely low-barrier-of-entry industry," Mr. Glickman explains. "There's been an uptake in the professionalism of the candidates that they require."

Those seeking work in distant classrooms are also facing increased competition from candidates with a distinct advantage: English teachers who are already abroad.

Mr. Frey says more English teachers are renewing their contracts this year, likely discouraged by the bleak job market back home. In Korea, renewal rates have increased from 30 per cent to about 40 or 50 per cent, he says, with retention rates as high as 80 or 90 per cent in Hong Kong.

For 23-year-old Ted Lee, currently teaching in Buyeo, South Korea, the grass is definitely greener on the other side of the Pacific. Mr. Lee is a former financial adviser in Long Island, N.Y., but decided to move to Korea last year to teach English.

He's already renewed his contract and is considering staying for a third year.

It was an easy decision to make. Back home, his friends are being laid off; in Korea, Mr. Lee enjoys a tax-free salary of about $28,000 a year, free housing and plenty of time to travel.

"It was almost impossible to get jobs [back home]" he says. "And I already have one, so why not keep it for a while?"

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