Thursday, June 19, 2008

Getting a Job in Panama as a Foreigner

This is a frequent question I get. If you google getting a job in Panama, you will read that for foreigners without a work permit finding a job has to do with personal contact as much as (or more than) having a US degree.

Panama is a great place to be an entrepreneur if your clients are located worldwide - not as good place to be an employee of a Panama company. If you think about being a "salaryman" in Panama, the call center at Dell always needs young insomniacs at US$600/month.

Most companies feel that US or European workers will come with expectations of a stateside salary which will create jealousies from local staff which performs the same work. Branches of US multinationals are usually manned by an expat send from headquarters who does not want another English-speaking stateside young mind to steal away his thunder. Many Panama companies are privately-held and prefer to hire an incompetent relative over a smart finance wiz from Wharton. UN, STRI, embassies and other international organizations or NGOs usually tailor their hiring ads in order to favor a friend they want to hire ("International Relations graduate with 13.5 years of experience with a government organization and 3.25 years working in a European country").
Foreign professionals will find that Panama-owned companies are unwilling to go through the work permit hassle unless they feel they really need somebody (MBA in finance, bilingual accounting and occasionally marketing) or are really needed because of a short supply (all Civil Engineering and Port-related degrees - and now even Geology experts). By law, companies cannot hire more than 10% of their staff as foreigners so they think twice about their hiring.

Needless to say, fluency in Spanish is helpful, a work permit is crucial. Thinking about moving to Panama with a family and then finding a job - as some have suggested by email - is not prudent. Things to do which are not guaranteed to get a foreigner a job but certainly do not hurt:

- Send resumes in SPANISH and English to Panama alumni. Your college's alumni office should have their addresses. Pay a Spanish translator to proofread the Spanish version. Most Panamanian alumni may have aced their written exams in the US but are more comfortable with a resume in Spanish.

- List your resume with Panama headhunters registered in and Panama websites like Specify that you are willing to pay all expenses of your relocation, work permit and visa.

- Read the 2 leading business weeklies in Panama: and Not only do they give you most of the hard realities on Panama business, the new, progressive companies and they also have job surveys every so often.

- If you can afford it, enroll in a good Panama MBA program . Locals who are currently working with Panama companies attend there. Even better, enroll with Thunderbird or another school popular with Latin execs to start a networking process BEFORE relocating.

Back when Latpro was just a free conference list and before they started charging for their website services, its founder Eric Shannon circulated a very revealing email about how HR people at multinationals think, when going abroad:

Subject: Managing Your International Career Forum Synopsis
Date: Thu,16 Oct 1997 08:31:49-0400
From: Eric Shannon
To: “Latco list(E-mail)”

This email contains a synopsis of “Managing Your International Career” a forum held September 22, 1997 by the Global Business Association of New York City.

Best Regards,

Eric Shannon
Latin America’s Professional Network (LATPRO)
For more information about LATPRO, send a blank email to or visit our web site:

KF = Korn Ferry
CX = CONEX / Intersearch
WMB = West Merchant Bank


Both KF and CX are “agressively seeking” Spanish speaking candidates. In the last six months CX finds Information Technology to be the hottest market. KF agrees but says recruitment for these positions is a “local issue”. KF says Mexico is a “hot market”, Venezuela is coming back nicely, Brazil office is expanding rapidly while Argentina is flat. The major drivers are multinationals and some large indigenous family conglomerates.

WMB emphasizes that they are mostly sending infrastructure people to Latin America – technology and intranet specialists.

All the panellist agreed that they prefer to hire foreign nationals (locals) over US citizens for foreign assignments. They emphasized several times that the corporation will always choose the fastest, most efficient, cheapest alternative. A foreign national with a “western education” is always their first choice.

WMB- Doesn’t like to hire US citizens in foreign countries because in this situation they are paid as locals and find themselves sitting next to another American from headquarters who makes more money.
Goldman Sachs VP disagreed, has no problems making these hires.

The panellists report that Americans with foreign MBA’s are not at a disadvantage with their US educated counterparts and they also view the executive MBA no differently than the full time MBA.

When they do send US citizens on foreign assignments they look for mentor / teacher types who can more easily train locals to replace themselves


CX remarks that a good way to get an international assignment is to attend an international MBA program such as Thunderbird’s, MIBS, or pepperdidine’s. Recruiters tend to gravitate to their alumni networks particularly the more organized ones. WMB agrees; “strong alumni networks play a key role in our recruiting”.

KF says the best way to get overseas is to go to work for a company with revenues of 10 billion or more in a domestic assignment and lobby persistently for an expatriate assignment. WMB agrees and mentions that they generally don’t send anyone overseas who doesn’t have several years experience with the company.

KF- Be careful picking your international assignment as the general manager of operations in a small country, you may be forgotten- “Vince Who???” Have an exit strategy or end up in a job you had ten years ago when you get back. Try to negotiate your next job when they promote you. Even if you do this, the person you negotiated your career path with may have been axed when you get back!


AM- I like it, sometimes companies are looking for that types of person. My boss however would say he doesn’t like it. Companies look heavily at the chronology of your resume.

KF- This is a very serious issue with a man – if his career is substantive or if he has been job seeking, it isn’t so bad. Unemployment or consulting gaps are OK but travelling is a serious question mark for me.

WMB – If you haven’t been laid off in financial services you lack experience.


AM – If the person has the skills the client is looking for and there is chemistry between the candidate and the client and the company is flexible – no problem. The search is always steered by what the client says.

KF – this person should look into opportunities with the consulting companies.

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