Americans eye opportunities in Brazil's booming economy

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Niccolo and Donkey
Americans eye opportunities in Brazil's booming economy


Paula Adamo Idoeta

March 18, 2011

Todd Harkin had never been to Brazil before deciding to move there permanently

Todd Harkin worked for 16 years as a chef for a US food chain in Missouri, but two years ago he realised that his employers were offering more opportunities in Brazil than at home.

"There were no more openings there. But in Brazil they were practically doubling their size," says Mr Harkin.

"I asked if they had opportunities for a gringo like me and they said yes."

Jumping at the chance, Mr Harkin moved to Brazil's business capital, Sao Paulo, in 2009, a move that also meant he and his Brazilian wife, Melissa, could be closer to her family.

American-Mexican couple Jose and Marcela Lizarraga also found themselves drawn to Sao Paulo in 2010.

Mr Lizarraga's employers at the time - a company in the hotel sector - decided to move their Latin American headquarters from Dallas to Brazil to take advantage of the country's economic growth.

"Opportunities are happening here, especially for people from other cultures," says Mrs Lizarraga.

Once in Sao Paulo, her husband received an even better job offer and moved to the aviation technology sector. They plan to stay for another 18 months.

The Harkins and the Lizarragas are part of an increasing trend - Americans moving south in search of the "Brazilian dream".

According to the Brazilian Labour Ministry, 7,550 American citizens were granted a work visa in Brazil in 2010, up from 5,590 the previous year and more than double the number in 2006.

The majority of Brazil's legal foreign workers come from the US.

The reasons are clear. The US has been struggling to recover economic growth and unemployment is running at some 9%. By contrast, Brazil's economic performance in recent years has been strong - 7.55% in 2010.

And that means demand for workers has been growing. While China, for example, adds about 400,000 engineers to its workforce annually, only about 35,000 engineers graduate each year in Brazil.

Olympic interest

According to data from employment agency Manpower, published in the Economist , 64% of Brazilian employers find it difficult to fill job vacancies.

Four headhunting companies all confirmed the growing interest from US workers in the Brazilian market, interest that may be further boosted by President Barack Obama's visit to Brazil this weekend.

The Lizarragas say living costs are higher than in Dallas but they do not regret moving

"The interest in Brazil is not exclusively American but, since we have a big commercial relationship, the number of Americans coming to Brazil is big as well," says Renato Gutierrez, consultant at HR company Mercer.

"There are a lot of American companies buying up Brazilian ones, and vice versa."

"We've always seen Europeans coming to Brazil, but not Americans. Now they are seeing opportunities here," says Jacques Sarfatti, from headhunter Russell Reynolds.

One of the key sectors for foreigners is energy, mostly because of the country's expanding oil and gas exploration industries. There are also opportunities in infrastructure, mining, retail and finance.

Interest in Brazil is increasing as the country gears up to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games two years later.

Welcome Expats, a Rio de Janeiro-based company that helps foreigners to settle in Brazil, says demand has doubled since 2009, mainly because more people are coming to work in the oil industry.

"And our services will grow. I've heard of (foreign) companies that plan to bring another thousand people from abroad," says Monica de Mello, owner of Welcome Expats.


But starting a new life in Brazil has its challenges, with foreigners facing language and cultural differences.

"Many are surprised that so few people speak English in Brazil," says Marilena Britto, who also works to help foreigners adapt to their new lives.

Brazilian bureaucracy, the high cost of living in major cities, and concerns over personal safety can also cloud the dream.

"In Sao Paulo, I pay double the rent I did for a bigger house in Dallas," says Mrs Lizarraga.

"Restaurant and transport prices are also higher."

Development of Brazil's offshore oil fields is attracting foreign interest

On the other hand, she praises the local hospitality.

"We came with an open mind and felt embraced by the people. Our social life is already bigger than the 30 years I lived in the US," says Mrs Lizarraga.

Mr Harkin has a similar view.

"I started out understanding less than 30% of what people told me at work, but my colleagues were patient. I felt really lucky."

Wife Melissa, who lived in the US with him for a little more than a year, misses the quieter life in Missouri and is frustrated by the long hours they spend stuck in traffic jams in Sao Paulo.

Mr Harkin says he misses his breakfast sausages - and his family and friends.

But, overall, the Harkins believe moving to Brazil was worth it.

"Brazil has better financial opportunities, especially for Todd. He can achieve more," says Mrs Harkin.