After…ahem…seven months back in Bishkek I will (finally?) be starting full time work doing something that isn’t teaching English. Originally I planned to take three weeks to a month off to relax and recuperate after the stress (and frozen toes) of academia in an institution “where fun goes to die” (along with my hope of conducting research anywhere near my field of interest…). Instead I cobbled together a few part-time jobs (teaching ‘Talking Club’ at one university in April/May, developing English classes for executive assistants and office managers at the same university, interning at an NGO, teaching on italki; wrote a 300 page English conversation and grammar textbook for adult beginners, applied for a dozen jobs, studied Russian and Turkish, created a website for E’s cousin, vacationed, set up American College Guidance Counselors, and thought my way through post-academia.
Monday I’ll be starting full-time work, forty hours a week in an office at the same university. My job basically entails giving the university international visibility through re-vamping their English website, building and maintaining a social media platform, creating an archive of professional English correspondence document templates, and networking with other universities and academic organizations to grow international connections and recognition. I think I’ll style myself ‘International Communications Coordinator’ as I do not yet have an official job title. I actually met with the rector of said university last January and it was agreed then that I would start working in a position very similar to the one I’m about to take up…when I came back in March.
So why did it take so long? Why was it so easy for me to find employment in my five years in China, and so hard here? First, because things in Bishkek always take a long time. For example, it’s now nearly December, and yet not one of the four hundred foreign teachers at the university has yet received their work permit, due to some glitch/backup(?) in the Kyrgyz government bureau that is supposed to take care of these things. The school year started almost three months ago. Likewise, I had an American friend come to Bishkek last April expecting to find temporary work with the same ease as in China. She didn’t. More established institutions like The London School and AUCA (American University of Central Asia) were hiring for next fall.
Second, because there simply aren’t a lot of jobs for (non-Turkish) foreigners in Bishkek. The American airforce base is packing up, a lot of development projects are winding down, and there really aren’t a lot of international corporations here apart from Coca Cola and Kumtor. Even if there seem to be a lot of NGO and UN-related offices in the city, most have only a few foreigners in their office. At first I thought that, only if I looked hard enough, I would find a good job. Then I realized that there really weren’t any jobs. Between LinkedIn, Indeed.com, UNJobs, donors.kg and company/NGO/Embassy websites, I would only see maybe 3-4 job openings a month. And I don’t mean 3-4 pertinent job openings – I mean 3-4 total, ranging from things like Software Developer to Cultural Affairs Assistant to Accountant. A lot of the jobs also prefer previous experience in the industry and at least intermediate skills in Russian – most locally-employed people I know have a MA and can speak some Russian or Kyrgyz.
Third, because salaries are often really low and a lot of local people/companies/NGOs don’t want to provide fair compensation for your time and work. This may be due to state-reliance under the soviet system and NGO/UN reliance during Kyrgyzstan’s period of development. I once worked in an international high school in China as a college guidance counselor, helping students find and apply for appropriate universities in the states. In China, that pays fairly well (three years ago about $2,400 a month in a city where I paid $400 in rent for a new three-bedroom apartment in a beautiful gated complex, lunch cost an average of $1.50, and a subway ride was $0.30). Here, people are used to getting this service for free through the government/the Soros Foundation, and thus aren’t willing to pay anything or very much for it. The last time I heard (June), The London School pays teachers $600 a month + dormitory accommodation for a full teaching schedule. Part time teachers I met from AUCA were making about $8-10 an hour. iLACA pays about the same for 75 minute classes. Other language schools around the city all offer similar compensation (an overview here). In short, barely enough to justify my time + commuting across the city. If I’m going to be earning only $20 a day, it better be for a good cause, or doing something I really enjoy and believe will help me develop professional skills.
If you don’t need an income, a lot of NGOs will willingly take summer or temporary interns. Some pay a stipend; most (like Eurasia Foundation and Helvetas) don’t, even if you are doing work you would be paid for elsewhere (or, as I did, doing work for someone else who is getting paid to do what I was actually doing…).
On a side note: to those planning on coming to Bishkek just to experience the culture and learn some Russian, The London School is probably your most solid option. I believe they offer Russian classes for their teachers, and they also have an intern-teach/experience Central Asia/learn Russian/work towards your TEFL program.
On a second side note: if you aren’t set on Kyrgyzstan, salaries are far more generous and job openings more plentiful in nearby Almaty, the old capital of Kazakhstan – look here, here, here, here, and here.
Fourth, because of the visa/resident permit/work permit problem. Kyrgyz visa regulations seem to change by the month. Basically, most foreign nationals can enter and stay for up to two months visa-free. Some organizations will arrange for work permits; some will not. People working part-time are not eligible for work permits, so I’ve met AUCA teachers who hopped across the border to Tajikistan or Kazakhstan every sixty days or paid an agency or…something. At the same time, certain employers (like a lot of the NGOs and the embassies) won’t even consider an application unless you already have a work or residence permit…which you can get by working full time for a legitimate organization in Kyrgyzstan (or – highly un-recommended – going through a quasi-legal agency that magically transforms your cash into stamps and documents otherwise un-procurable)…which requires you to have a work permit in the first place…which is basically a case of the snake eternally eating it’s own tail. This is also why many internships are unpaid – because, due to complex government regulations, organizations can’t have anyone in their accountbooks who isn’t legally employed in the country.
So – Yay! I found interesting, legitimate employment. But I wouldn’t recommend coming to Bishkek for the express purpose of looking for work. If you just want to be in Central Asia (and aren’t conducting sensitive research), then Kazakhstan is a much better bet.