// The world is your oyster!

With strong international demand for quality fitness professionals, Australian group exercise instructors have the world at their feet, says Andrew Ward.

As a fitness professional and Network member, I'm going to take it as a given that you are passionate about helping others improve their health and fitness. But I will ask, do you love to travel, enjoy meeting new people and have a strong sense of adventure? If you are feeling the need for a new challenge then a great career move could be closer and more achievable than you may think.

Flashback to the mid 1990s: I was feeling a bit 'stale', as though I had more to learn from, and more to give to, the fitness industry. I was restless and needed to make a change, but wasn't sure what that should be. In 1997 fate intervened. I was travelling at the time, and through good fortune and the right contacts I found myself 'guest' teaching some group exercise classes at the newest and most amazing fitness facility in Hong Kong. I was instantly sold, almost mesmerised by the experience, passion and momentum that had been bottled in this eventual industry prototype.

Until this point, the Asia Pacific fitness industry was very immature. There were no large health-club chains and gyms were either up-market boutique facilities attached to 5-star hotels and country clubs, or run-down old bodybuilding facilities from the 1970s.

Although foreign fitness professionals were sought after for their experience and professionalism, positions and opportunities were very scarce. By 1997, however, the fitness industry in Asia was about to explode, and along with it, demand for experienced group exercise instructors. I literally returned to Australia from my overseas trip, re-packed my bags and headed back to Hong Kong – without guidance, advice or a strategy. It was all about following my heart.

Upping sticks

Relocating and starting my life and career from scratch was not easy. I left my friends, a comfortable three-bedroom home, my sports car, great restaurants and social scene, and my secure fitness work in Melbourne's best gyms, all for an 18 square metre apartment, endless trips on 1900's era trams, menus I couldn't read and only one or two acquaintances.

On top of this, I had landed at the old Kai Tak airport without a valid work permit, confirmed place of abode or an employment contract… I had to work most of that out. But despite all these 'hardships', moving to Hong Kong was one of the best things I had ever done. I was throwing caution to the wind and following my passion for group exercise and helping others live better lives. I embraced the challenge, and felt myself come alive again.

These days, you don't need to be a 'pioneer' to work in fitness in Asia. The industry has matured, is well respected and there is a clearly marked path to follow if you wish to take your skills overseas and explore life in an exciting and different world. International fitness chains such as California Fitness, Fitness First and Pure Fitness actively recruit foreign fitness professionals, so if you have something special to offer, employment options are there to be explored.

So, if you aren't afraid of hard work, you love fitness and adventure, and you need a change, what are you waiting for? You have your qualifications and there are jobs available. Real opportunity awaits in Asia, and it may just be too exiting to ignore!

Considerations for working abroad

And so, to the practicalities of making the move and working in Asia. While following your heart, as I did, is all well and good, it's a good idea to be a little better prepared! Here are some tips on what to expect and how to take the next step.

What jobs exist?

Full time fitness jobs exist in Asia, especially if you are an expatriate worker. In most cases this is a mandatory point of visa eligibility.
Teaching group exercise has a WOW factor due to the high participation levels and the energy of the programs, and most facilities run full schedules of 10 to 15 classes per day, so there is plenty of work available. Personal training can be lucrative, with an abundance of work due to the high percentage of new exercisers.

Naturally, management and career roles exist, and these can be both rewarding and lucrative, but you need to understand the way the local business works. It is better to start in a fitness role and prove yourself while gaining experience of your market. My advice when working in Asia (and everywhere, actually) is to commit, and to over-deliver on expectations.

Andrew with his family and movie star and California Fitness partner Jackie Chan

Arranging your visa

You must arrange a Working Visa. Working on a tourist visa is illegal, and if you are caught you are likely to be deported and blacklisted for future opportunity – so stay legit and do everything above board!

Working Holiday or Temporary Work Permit
This is the best option if you are aged 18 to 30. Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, Korea and Thailand all have a Working Holiday scheme that allows Australian citizens to work for up to 12 months (six months in Singapore). Of these, Hong Kong and Singapore are probably the most 'language-friendly' locations, and are culturally closest to Australia. While other countries like China, Malaysia and Vietnam are exciting places to work, they don't have Working Holiday programs, so you would need to find an employer to sponsor you.

A great advantage of the temporary work permit is that you can apply for it and have it approved before you travel, making you a much more attractive proposition for an employer. It also gives you the flexibility of 'trialing' the company and your new work environment without any obligations to stay with them, unlike with a full work permit, where your options to change employers are more limited and more challenging if you are not happy. Allow two to three months for this application process.

Full Work Permit
The most common method of engaging a foreign worker is through company sponsorship of your employment. If your enthusiasm for getting the permit is greater than your prospective employer's enthusiasm for sponsoring you, it can be a tricky and time-consuming – but not impossible – process. To sponsor you, a company must prove that your skills are unique and in scarce supply locally, and justify its business reasons for employing you. For larger companies, much of this is just a procedure, but it is not guaranteed and it doesn't follow a guaranteed timeline. To make the process easier for everyone concerned, you should prepare an excellent CV complete with copies of all certifications, qualifications and references. These will be required both for your job application, and by the immigration department of your potential future homeland.

For complete details about working overseas, including visa application forms, visit the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) website www.dfat.gov.au/visas

Employment options in Asia
Country Temporary Visa (18-30) Work Permit with Sponsor Difficulty 1-5 (5 being hard) Other realistic option
Hong Kong Yes Yes

3

No

Singapore

Yes Yes 3 Yes, S-Pass

Taiwan

Yes Yes 3 No

China

No Yes 5 No

Thailand

Yes Yes 3 No

Korea

Yes Yes 4 No

Malaysia

No Yes 3 No

Vietnam

No Yes 4 No

Japan

Yes Yes 4 No

S Pass (Singapore only)
Granting full work permits for foreign fitness professionals can be a challenging and expensive (in both time and money) process for companies in Singapore. One option for companies to pursue is the S Pass application. S Pass applications are for mid-skilled foreign workers – a common category for fitness professionals in the country. The process is simpler, cheaper and quicker to process. Companies can employ up to 25 per cent of their workforce on S Pass. For more information on the S Pass and Singapore Visa process, visit the Singapore Ministry of Manpower website www.mom.gov.sg

Setting up a business or consultancy
This method was used by some foreign fitness professionals 10 to 15 years ago, when the industry was in its infancy. It is not common these days and most companies are less motivated to engage you via this method, as you would not be an actual employee.

From a risk point of view, you may not be covered by the company's insurance. Preparing documentation for employment would also be non-standard, creating potential roadblocks for you. There are costs involved, and consultation required, so this is not a highly recommended route. These days, if companies want you, they will sponsor you.

Exchange rate

Globally, it's a great time to be earning Australian dollars in Australia and to be spending those dollars abroad, but if you are earning local currency in your destination you will have to consider how the values compare, especially if you plan to repatriate your earnings at any point. That's to say; what you earn in Asia may allow you to live well while you're over there, but any savings you transfer to Australian dollars may not amount to much. Swings in currency values can be erratic, so it can be helpful to get some financial advice, and you should definitely download the Bloomberg app for your iPhone if you do work overseas.

Taxation

Meet with an accountant before you travel to make sure you know where the taxation benefits and pitfalls lie. Taxation rates across Asia, especially in Hong Kong and Singapore, are favourable and less than 20 per cent. Your accountant can tell you all about this – meeting them should be mandatory before you embark on overseas work of any kind.

Accommodation

Small, small and small! Don't expect to replicate your three bedroom house with double garage in Asia. Expect about forty square metres for a single, and maybe up to sixty square metres for a couple. This should be affordable and typically will consume approximately 30 to 40 per cent of your monthly income. Embrace the change: small apartment living is fun and efficient – and there's so much less space that needs cleaning!

Lifestyle

Working is Asia demands an upward shift in workload and career focus compared with Australia. The norm in Hong Kong is a 6-day, 54-hour working week. In the fitness industry, you can usually work as long and as hard as you want – the work is there for the taking.

You can wave goodbye to parking fines in Asia because you probably won't buy a car! High registration, parking and vehicle purchase costs make car ownership impractical, but that's OK because you won't need one anyway due to the incredibly convenient and efficient public transport!

Climates are generally warmer, and more humid than in Australia. Local, economical travel to destinations like Japan for skiing and Thailand for beaches is a real perk, but best of all, the hospitality in most of Asia is extremely welcoming and friendly. As a foreigner working for a fitness facility, you will also possess a certain mystique. If you are kind and courteous, members will treat you like one of their family – but you'd better be a good instructor or trainer as the expectations will be high!

Loneliness and isolation

Technology has almost made isolation from friends and family a thing of the past. When I first went to Asia, I did suffer from loss of contact with loved ones, because electronic communications were still fairly primitive, slow and expensive. Today it's easy to keep in constant touch via facebook, Skype, twitter and countless other social media, so the old sense of loneliness is almost a non-issue.

Goals

Whatever your goals are – career-, personal development- or experience-wise – always keep them front of mind. It's very easy to get distracted in Asia, and many expatriates lose sight of what they originally left home to find and come back worse off. If you plan to return to Australia some day, it's extremely comforting when you can say that you achieved what you set out to do in the first place – so stay focused.

Effort and experience

Like any form of travel or adventure, it's all about the experiences and the people you meet. As fitness professionals, we work in a great industry where we help others on a daily basis. Taking this simple pleasure across borders and cultures can be a really special experience, especially if you make the effort to learn a little about the culture and some basics of the language before you go. This effort, along with your character traits, will be duly noted by your employer and the club members – and it's they who ultimately decide your immediate and potential long-term future. The more groundwork you do before you leap into an overseas experience, the better.

Like many expatriates, I left for what I thought would be a three-month, maybe one-year maximum trip away from Australia. That turned into a 14-year life changing experience. There are still many great stories, both personal and career-based, to come from Aussie fitness professionals working abroad in the future. I highly recommend you consider expanding your horizons by spending some time away from Australia as part of your fitness journey. In addition to the amazing time you will have, you can bring what you learn back to Australia, enriching your fitness community with the benefits of your experience.

Andrew Ward, BAppSc
Andrew spent 14 years based in Hong Kong as 2IC and senior vice president of operations for California Fitness. At its peak, the business operated 28 health clubs in five Asian countries with 250,000 members. One of his more significant achievements was driving the group fitness revolution across the Asia region, where participation in group exercise topped 2.5million workouts annually at California Fitness. In 2011, Andrew returned to Melbourne and took up a multi-business management role with YMCA Victoria.