Help Wanted: Booming Brazil Opens Its Doors To Foreign Executives

Rising foreign investment and steady growth have created a real need in Brazil for qualified executives. Foreigners - even those with less-than-stellar Portuguese skills - are encouraged to apply.

City skyline in Sao Paulo, Brazil
City skyline in Sao Paulo, Brazil
Daniela Arce

Nevermind that he couldn't speak the language, or that he hardly knew anything about the Brazilian market. Two years ago, Felipe Leonard packed his bags and moved across the border from Argentina to Brazil. Originally on the payroll of an Argentine-Belgian company, Leonard later found a job with a firm called Grupo Gamma, where he currently works as a general manager.

"This country really intrigued me," he says. "But other than the fact that it's a monster of a country that's galloping along, I didn't know anything about Brazil."

Leornard's story isn't all that unusual. Qualified executives capable of helping Brazil maintain its rapid growth are in high demand in the Latin American juggernaut, where direct foreign investment has increased by 38% since 2009, even as it dropped off worldwide by 24%, according to the International Monetary Fund. Goldman Sachs predicts that over the coming years, economic growth in the entire BRICS block will continue to outpace the world average. Besides Brazil, the BRICS group includes Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Not surprisingly, companies here are more interested than ever in attracting – and holding onto – talent. Brazilian tycoon Eike Batista, owner of the conglomerate EBX Group, is investing in a naval university in Rio de Janeiro in order to train engineers and managers for a massive port complex he's building in the south of the country. The Brazilian oil giant Petrobras, meanwhile, is busy promoting itself to future executives via an ongoing series of conferences delivered at universities.

These companies have to "fill the worker shortage somehow, whether it means stealing people from competitors, looking for retired people or searching for people in Europe or elsewhere in Latin America," explains Roberto Machado, a managing director with the recruitment firm Michael Page. "Each company has its own strategy depending on the sector. In the oil industry, for example, it's easiest to find people in Houston, Angola or Venezuela."

Must speak English… and a bit of Portuguese

For top posts, firms tend to work with headhunters, or hire through their various branches in Latin America and abroad. Recruiting specialists say job seekers should have international experience and be able to speak English. Foreign candidates would also do well to learn at least a bit of Portuguese. Though it's not necessary in most executive offices, Portuguese skills "can be a real plus for candidates," says São Paulo Business School (BSP) professor Vivian Manasse Leite.

Given the labor scarcity, Brazilian firms are paying quite well these days – at least by Latin American standards. Recruiters say the rapidly growing country is also a great learning ground for international executives. But there are also some downsides to setting up shop in Brazil. Violence is one of them. According to the U.N."s most recent Global Homicide Study, approximately 43,000 were murdered in Brazil in 2009 – roughly 22.7 per 100,000 inhabitants.

Foreigners moving to Brazil may also have to contend with legal and bureaucratic difficulties. "Because its tax scheme is so complicated, Brazil is known for being a cemetery when it comes to small companies arriving from abroad," says Felipe Leonard. "There are more than 50 different taxes that vary depending on what state you live in." In order to survive, foreign companies trying to set up a base in Brazil must rely on knowledgeable local advisors, he explains.

And even though the labor market has opened up significantly, foreigners still face legal impediments to working in Brazil. There are, for example, limits for how many foreigners a company can employ. Some Spanish companies, such as Telefónica and Banco Santander, have run into problems on that front.

Then there's the necessary cultural adjustments foreigners must make. Brazilians have a style all their own that takes some getting used to, says Leonard. "You can be in a work meeting, and it may seem like everything went phenomenally, but no," he says. "Brazilians are different, so you have to get used to the different social codes."

One major difference, according to BSP teacher Vivian Manasse, is that Brazilian business people tend to put the onus for understanding their message on the listener, rather than focusing on being "good communicators." She says foreigners often struggle to decipher the implied messages. "Brazilians have a habit of not finishing their sentences, leaving the listener to intuit the conclusion," says Manasse.

The Argentine comedian Peter Capusotto sums it up quite well with his "Duda da Silva" character, a flaky Brazilian singer who never finishes a single stanza of his songs and who biggest hit is "whatever will be, will be."

Read more from AméricaEconomía in Spanish

Photo - Rodrigo_Soldon

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