Broadening HR horizons: working in the UK

by 20 Feb 2007

As the northern winter melts, Australian HR professionals considering a life change will start to seriously pursue job opportunities in the UK. Teresa Russell talks with a number of experts and expats about working in the UK

With one eye on career advancement and another on great travel opportunities, many HR professionals consider the UKan ideal destination. We speak the same language, drive on the same side of the road, and have friends, family or colleagues who have been before.

The path from Australia to London is well travelled – usually by single 20-somethings who can get a working holiday visa. But because the UK economy is so buoyant, opportunities are now available to those with a wide range of skills and experience.

John Baker, strategic development director for Bernard Hodes Group, which runs a 35-consultant HR recruitment team under the name Macmillan Davies Hodes (MDH), was recently in Sydney recruiting Australian consultants for his London-based consultancy.

“There is a strong demand across all industry sectors for good HR people. There’s no real barrier to entry for generalists, OD and L&D professionals [wanting to move from Australia to the UK],” says Baker. “The easiest people to place have experience in recognisable organisations in the Australian market. They are graduates who have had good progress in their careers,” he says.

Mark Brewer, partner at Frazer Jones (the UK arm of Australian recruiter HR Matters) says that Australians have a good reputation among UK employers. “They are known as having a good work ethic, are extremely uncomplicated and will get in and do the job,” he says.

Brewer adds that IR specialists find it more difficult to transfer their skills because of the differences in employment law between the two countries. He stresses that the problem is not insurmountable. Most Australians are under 30, therefore the more junior the role, the less of an issue it is. “There is a huge amount of contract work available and companies are desperate for good talent,” he says.

“It is often easiest to get your foot in the door in the HR interim market,” says Nicola Grimshaw, director at Digby Morgan, “especially if your experience is in compensation and benefits or as an HR generalist.” Grimshaw sees the most transferable of the HR skills are in HR projects, L&D, recruitment and resourcing.

“HR is recognised as one of the top professions now, with a lot more HR directors sitting on boards. Therefore the calibre of candidate needs to be of stronger and stronger quality. HR professionals need to be commercially savvy and understand the market from a business perspective,” observes Grimshaw.

As long as the candidate has the right to work in the UK, all consultants say there is no problem finding placements for Australian expatriate HR professionals, although those looking for HR director-level work may have to wait a little longer to find the right job.

It is rare for companies to hire anyone before they arrive in the UK. The general consensus is to get a visa, get on a plane, recover from the jetlag and meet with a few consultants (see box 1) as soon as possible. Sending your CV in advance and arranging an appointment from Australia can speed up this process. Many candidates are interviewing with companies within a few days, and start work inside two weeks of landing at Heathrow.

Gordon Whyte, director for HR interims at Digby Morgan says that most roles that his division deals with are project-based roles or change roles. “These types of jobs can add weight to a CV. The UK market is a much bigger employment market with more varied roles [than Australians are used to], says Whyte, who worked as an HR recruitment consultant in Sydney for ten years. “While organisations will hire people with specific experience, you can broaden your industry exposure by working on two to three different assignments,” he explains.

Whyte says there is strong demand for HR professionals working in interim roles in the financial services market and professional services (law, accounting and consulting). Those with experience working in large organisations with a central shared services function or managing the outsourcing of key functions to third-party providers are also highly sought.

Skills that are in high demand for interim roles include change and project management, global rewards management (Asia-Pacific experience), and anything in the resourcing and talent management field – from co-ordinator through to recruitment director.

Leaving on a jet plane

The type of visa you get will determine everything from the type of roles you may apply for and the length of your stay in the UK. If you are a Commonwealth citizen aged between 17 and 30, you can enter the UKwith a ‘working holidaymaker visa’. You may not work for more than 12 months over the two-year visa period and you may not accept permanent employment. Only contract or interim work is allowed.

A condition of getting a working holidaymaker visa is that you must have enough money in the bank to pay for your journey to the UK and accommodation and living expenses for the first two months after you arrive. See or

Working holidaymaker visas are issued just once and may not be extended, however, you may be eligible to switch into work permit employment after 12 months in the UK if your occupation is on the list of “shortage occupations” or under the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme (HSMP).

Australian university graduates who are 31 or older and earn over $44,500 qualify for the HSMP visa.

If you have a UK-born parent or grandparent, and are a Commonwealth citizen over 17, you may be issued a UK‘ancestry visa’. This means you can be employed in the UK without requiring a work permit for up to five years. After this time, you can apply for permanent residence, as long as you have spent five years in employment during this time.

All visas must be applied for in Australia before departure, even if you intend to travel for a few months before arriving. Visas cost $221 and can be applied for online, by post or through the nearest British Consulate. See for detailed information and application forms.

HR consultancies

Although finding work through HR consultants is not the only way to go, it is certainly an easy option for the new arrival who wants to get work quickly. The economy is booming and the good consultants have no shortage of briefs for permanent and interim positions.

Send your CV to a few consultants before departure and arrange a meeting on arrival. If you want to, you will probably be interviewing within a few days and are likely to be employed within a few weeks. You will probably have to wait longer for more senior positions. Be prepared to fully explain your career achievements to both the consultants and prospective employers.

Interim and contract

Those undertaking interim and contract HR assignments can be employed in three different ways. Gordon Whyte, director of Digby Morgan HR interims says recruitment companies commonly employ the interims. It pays all relevant insurances and taxes on your behalf.

Or, depending on the employment policies of some companies, you may go on a fixed-term contract on the client’s payroll.

A third method of employment is to set yourself up as a limited company that then invoices the consultancy. You become a more cost-effective hire to the employer and can take advantage of paying company tax, rather than personal income tax. You may only operate as a limited company if you have more than one employer in any 12-month period.

There are many umbrella companies that can create a limited company for you. Prices for set-up vary, but one specialist firm of chartered accountants, Competex, charges £150 ($378) + VAT to set up the company, then £1,200 ($3,025) per annum to run the payroll, manage the accounts, perform company secretarial duties and prepare final accounts for the central taxation authority.

Graham Shove, business development manager for Competex says an agency employee getting £450 ($1,135) after tax per week can increase their cash in hand by 30 per cent, by setting up their own limited company. (This includes accounting set-up and running costs). For more information, Shove suggests contacting the Interim Management Association or Competex

Returning home

When you want to return to Australia, send your CV ahead of you to the specialist HR consultancies. Be prepared to explain your responsibilities and achievements in your UK roles. If you have been working for a global company, you may well be able to network within the organisation and get an internal transfer to another country or back to Australia.

It may take you a little more time to get the right job on your return, especially if immediate career advancement is important to you.

Speaking from experience

Rebecca Batch (28), HR generalist, Citibank, London. Batch graduated from QUT with a BBus (HR) then secured a graduate role in an Australian manufacturing company, where she stayed for three years. She moved to work in the IR team for Commerce Queensland then did some contract work in Sydney as an HR officer for the Commonwealth Bank and P&OPorts. She rejoined Commerce Queensland as an HR manager to 120 staff.

Batch and her lawyer husband left Australia in January 2006 to have an adventure. She originally had a working holiday visa, but because her husband got a four-year right to work visa before departure, she qualified for a spousal work permit, which she says has made the move a lot easier.

"If we had been on holiday visas we would have been looking at very different roles. I wanted to work in a big HR team for a big corporate. Without my spousal visa, I would have been put up for more junior or temporary roles," she says. Just three weeks after starting her job search, she took a role at Citibank, which was a 10-month maternity leave cover. The role has now become permanent.

Differences: "Because of the sheer size of the market and the population, there are many opportunities in HR. There are larger HR teams; a lot more big global companies; a national employment system (not state-based); and some different terminology. The heavily regulated employment market limits decision making and can be less flexible. HR (where I work, at least) seems very focused on employment relations. Political correctness is also important," she says.

Likes: The large amount of travel she has managed, the change of seasons, and living in streets full of history.

Dislikes: Small accommodation, London's Tube, the tabloid press, and poorer customer service.

Stephanie Kemp (28), HR manager, Ernst & Young Global (EYG), London. Kemp first travelled during a gap year, then again after completing her BA (Psych) at MacquarieUniversity. After working as an administrator supporting the HR recruitment team at Morgan & Banks, she became an HR officer at the Swiss Grand Hotel, Bondi. From there, she took a self-described "big stretch" into a role as national HR manager for an Australian-based global software development company, Altium.

Kemp left Altium in June 2006 (via a few contract roles for them in the USA and Germany) to fulfil her goal of working in London before she was 30. She qualified for an ancestry visa.

Kemp had arranged interviews with two consultants on arrival - one she liked and the other she did not. "One told me in a very patronising way that because I had no London experience, I wasn't going to get a role over a particular level. When I went to see the other consultant, he handed me a fistful of jobs and asked me which ones I was interested in. I picked three," she says. Two days later, Kemp interviewed for a contract L&D role and her present position. She accepted EYG's offer 14 days after meeting the consultant - having received all three job offers during that time.

Differences: "You can't work in the global headquarters of a major global company in Australia," says Kemp, who finds her new role heading up the HR team for EYG challenging. "Employment law is a bit different, but best practice methodology is the same. There's just more structured processes for grievances, disciplinary actions, terminations etc," she says.

Likes: Shorter working hours, holiday allowance of 27 days with a further six able to be bought, great travelling opportunities, and lifestyle choices in the city.

Dislikes: Being such a long way from friends and loved ones.

Ashleigh Robbins (25), graduate recruitment coordinator (contract role), European Investment Bank, Sydney. Robbins did five years of study at WollongongUniversity completing a BA (Psych) and BComm (HR), plus a six-month European trip during the course. She worked for a small Wollongong recruitment company during the summer, and as an HR assistant three days per week during her student days.

In February 2005 she got a working holiday visa "under the old system", (could work for the full 24 months of her stay) then flew to London with two friends and a very open mind. "I had no idea what sort of company I would work for, but knew that this international HR experience would help my career when I got back to Australia," says Robbins.

She arranged to see a consultant two days after she landed. One week later, she had secured a three-month contract role as a graduate recruitment co-ordinator with UBS, a global investment bank. Her visa prevented her from taking a permanent role. When the initial term was completed, it became a rolling contract and Robbins stayed with UBS for 22 months. During that time, she took unpaid leave and travelled extensively.

Robbins says the learning curve when she first started was very steep, partly because the team of 20 graduate recruiters were at the peak of the intern recruiting cycle and partly because she had to get accustomed to a new country, new colleagues, new terminology in investment banking and all the new day-to-day tasks.

She returned in November, having sent her CV to Australian HR consultants and networked through friends and colleagues. Robbins commenced her current contract in January.

Differences: Greater choice of work due to the size of organisations and bigger HR teams, and availability of contract roles.

Likes: Earning in pounds sterling, and working in large HR teams.

Dislikes: Walking to work in the dark, cold winter.