Don’t come to Colombia looking for a Job

in Culture/Finding work/Plan to stay

Unless you plan to become a teacher or have a contract with a foreign company, coming to Colombia with hopes of landing your dream job might be a poor choice. Despite being one of the booming economies of Latin America, the labor market here is not very attractive from a foreigner’s perspective. Here’s why…

If you don’t speak the language perfectly, you automatically disqualify for 95% of all jobs.

After 30 you are considered old here. My neighbor, a 45 year old former branch manager in a bank, spent more than a year finding a new job. The reply he constantly got, was that he was too old. Most companies here are looking for someone young and energetic, willing to sacrifice their soul realizing someone else’s dream. Someone to underpay and over-work.

They will not tell you this, but if you have a family, that is considered a distraction to work. Not a first, but wait until you ask for a day off because you have a sick baby at home and see what kind reaction you will get from your superior.

Colombia has a lot of national holidays, but still, working for a Colombian company and it could be very hard for you to plan any type of vacation. Many of my local friends have had their vacations cancelled last minute, because their boss could not survive a week without them. This is a very common way of showing dominance here.

Most employers focus on the amount of hours you spend at the office more than on what actually gets done. I’ve seen first hand how my girlfriend had to stay in to office until 6pm, even though she was done with all of her tasks at 4pm. Two hours of waste. She could even work from home with a computer, but they never allowed her to do so.

Work hours here run Monday to Friday from 8am to noon and again from 2pm-6pm. Saturdays from 8-noon.
Yes, it sounds like 8 hours workdays like anywhere else, but what can you actually do in a two-hour lunch break when everything except restaurants are closed? Lunch here is the big meal of the day. I only need 30 minutes to eat lunch and I’d much rather leave work at 4pm. For me, it’s like wasting 7,5 hours a week or 390 hours a year.

The current weakness of the Colombian peso makes it worthless if you plan on spending any your hard-earned wages abroad. Minimum monthly wage in Colombia, set in place by politicians who have never had to live on a minimum wage, is $644.000 (2015) and equals a lousy USD$200 by today’s exchange rate. 55% of the working population here earns minimum wage (or less). If you raise the bar to $1.000.000 pesos (USD$300), which by many is considered a good salary here, the number rises to 75%. Only Venezuela comes to mind when I think of a worse place to be earning local currency at moment.

Don’t be surprised if they ask you to take a lie detector test as part of a job interview. Trust is good, but control is better.

My neighbor and his wife both work for one of the big sugar companies here in the valley. They’re intelligent people with university degrees, so-called Profesionales. They dress well. Yet, their superiors did not like they way they dressed, so they hired “experts” to come help them change their style. That’s a warning. Next time, you’re out.

Work culture here is very different as well. I read a study some time ago, that the average latino works 50 hours a week and produces less than his European counterparts who work 37 hours a week. For any productive individual, the pace of things here will drive you nuts.

There are always exceptions – the major ones here include Colombian businesses owned by foreigners. They tend to treat people better. But I think you get the point. Colombia is not a very attractive place to be an employee. Especially not if you are an independent worker looking to self-actualize and also have some spare time to pursue other interests.

It’s easy to fall in love with the exotic lifestyle, the people and wanting to stay. Work-wise, Colombia is way more interesting if you dream of creating something. It’s a great place to be an entrepreneur. Lots of the products, services and qualities that we are used to having in Europe or North America has yet to arrive here. I’m not saying it will be easy, but all of this untapped potential do leave you with many opportunities.

Finally, Colombia is also a great place to live if you’re a digital nomad and can live anywhere as long as you have your computer. I just read yesterday that the average worker at Google earns $153.000 dollars a year. With that kind of money you can live like a sultan in Colombia.

Passed through Cali for the first time in 2011, on his way from the US to Brazil on a motorcycle. Ended up kissing a caleña on his last night and the rest is history. Has been a resident of Cali, Colombia since 2013 and currently living in Barrio Bellavista with his girlfriend and 2 daughters.

19 Comments

  1. “For any productive individual, the pace of things here will drive you nuts.” Remember, the same thing applies for entrepreneurs building a business with Colombian companies. Business moves at a “mind-numbingly” slow pace.

    If you are going to be an entrepreneur, try to do it with people outside of Colombia or you will get roped into the same issues. I’m building a tech startup with Colombian businesses and while startups are known for flexibility and speed, those words don’t exist here in Colombia.

    • Hi David,
      Thanks for commenting – you’re absolutely right.
      BTW – I just read your excellent interview with HelloCasa! Very true on the lack of trust requiring personal introductions to get anything done. In Europe or the US, if I have money and you have a product = we are in business. This is far from the case here. Gotta do your ¿Como estás?, ¿Como vas? ¿Qué mas? and ¿Qué has hecho? in every place where you plan to establish a partnership or long-term business relation.
      The key is persistence and patience.

  2. The key thing to understand about the general work environment here is that employees are not valued in any way. You’ll never be rewarded for doing “a great job”, and any particular skills or experience you have will never be utilized. So, why would an employee pay you any more that the minimum he/she possibly could? Employees don’t seem to understand the direct relationship between you doing a good job, and their increased profits. (Maybe it’s too complicated?)

    And certainly, how much it actually costs to exist at a bare minimum here is of no consideration when employees tell you what salary they are offering for your position. All employee salaries are based on the assumption that everyone lives at home with mommy and daddy and only need money for motorcycle gas and Friday night beers.

    This is why Colombian companies don’t do much of value. No one is breaking new ground, no one is breaking their ass to be “the best” at anything. No one starts a business to “do things better”. It’s as if all business are just going through the motions of being in business. Money exchanges hands at the top, but nothing is actually done.

    In Colombia, doing the paperwork required of every task, no matter how meaningless or repetitive it is, is much more important than actually accomplishing anything. You can spend a full work week filling out 10 minutes of meaningless paperwork (which people do), and no manager will ever say you’re not doing your job. There’s no expectation of productivity and anyway, managers don’t know how to manage, or are afraid to manage their employees.

    So foreigners, who spend years building up their skill sets to become as valuable as possible to future employees, will find that all that hard work is in no way appreciated in Colombia.

    Y’know, generally speaking.

  3. I wonder if one doesnt speak German or French or English, how many Jobs different from cleaning could a person find in Switzerland.. you only moan here about everything… and everything happens to you,, you are robbed, scammed, now exploited and now you pretend to be chosen for a job no speaking the language…. . do you know how difficult is to find a work permit in Europe or USA.. here any foreigner feels has the right to have a manager or an office position without speaking Spanish when Colombian nationals go there and probably find cleaning Jobs.

    • Hi Adriana,
      First of, my blog has a post where I explain how to avoid being scammed / robbed when buying real estate. You call it moaning. I consider it helping out fellow expats who are unaware of how the Colombian systems works and all of the potential pitfalls.
      My Spanish is excellent by gringo standards, so I have no problems finding jobs here – but yet I find the labor market very unattractive from a foreigner’s perspective. Please remember the audience for this blog as a reader.
      95% of what I write is about all the positives that Cali and Colombia has to offer, but if you do not include any of the negatives you are ignoring reality. As always, you’re free to choose whether or not you want to read what I write.

      And BTW, you can get a job in Dubai without speaking Arab, a job in Singapore without speaking Malay, a job in Hong Kong without speaking Mandarin and even a job in Denmark without speaking Danish. If a Colombian goes to the US or Europe opting for a cleaning job, I suppose that it was out of free will and lack of good opportunities here. Working as a cleaner you will make a decent salary ($3-4000 US in Denmark) and you might even be treated better by your superiors.
      A final note, Colombia is far from an easy place to get you work permit. 3 foreign friends have just had their work visas rejected with no explanation given.

      • Hey Patrick.

        Unfortunately even just wanting to go to Europe or the US looking for a legal job it is not as easy as you could expect it. As your girlfriend is from Colombia and you have a lot of local friends I’m sure you know the struggles as a colombian that you have to face to work outside. I had all the requirements to work in Denmark for a summer job but as soon as they listen that I just could get a tourist visa by my own or otherwise they will need to write a contract for me. Their answer was a friendly not.

        I have 3 amazing Us friends that wanted to stay longer here and to work but unfortunately their visas were denied and when they ask why the answer was that it’s the same situation to a colombian asking for an american Visa.

        Most travelers are very nice but there are some who think they have the right to come here and stay as soon as they want. If you check the Canadian embassy website they clearly say to come to Canada is not a right it is a privilege.(just to cite an example) I like your article because it’s the thruth and it’s good also to colombians to see how the system is making us slaves of it. Sorry for my poor english and for your friends that wanted to stay longer because It’s hard for one to change plans and expectations for bureaucratic process, laws and preconception.

        • Hi Joha,
          Thank you for commenting. I totally agree with everything you say. Denmark is by no means an easy place to get a visa either. In fact, I’ve waited 8 months for a resident visa for my girlfriend and have still not even gotten a reply from the authorities. And she is the mother of 2 Danish girls.. But that’s a story for another day.

          BTW, don’t worry about your “poor” English writing. I’m no grammar-Nazi and the only way to improve any skill is by using it. Keep it up! 🙂

          – Patrick

  4. Thank you for your article. It was interesting to read about your perspective regarding the work culture in Colombia. I agree with you in some of your assertions, but not in all. I would be careful with general statements as those you made in your article, and for that reason, it makes me wonder if you have truly examined or experienced the wide range of work scenarios and job conditions in Colombia. I have been an employee in this country, and I assure you, it’s not as you describe everywhere. Hearing a couple of accounts from your girlfriend or a story from some other folks does not provide a full picture of how working in this country really is like. I have also worked in the States for over 36 years, and many of the complaints you list in your article are very much the same in the U.S. and Europe. My Colombian born and raised nephew and niece now living in Europe brought their work ethics there, only to be appalled after they encountered the level of laziness and lack of personal responsibility among employees there, who only want to show up, do the required minimum and go home every single day. They are often approached by their fellow colleagues with question of why they work so hard and why they care about the work they do. My niece has often had to deal with a sick child over the phone because her supervisor will not allow her to go home to take care of her. So, as you can see, similar problems occur everywhere; not just in Colombia.

    Now, moving on to another subject, next time you write another article like this, I beg you, please have it proof read before you submit it. It was difficult to focus on the piece with all the errors in it. There are so many grammatical errors, as well as multiple typos everywhere! I understand that not everyone is a grammar genius, but because of that, it’s reason enough to have a second or a third individual edit your piece before you submit it, don’t you think?

    Unbelievable! Sorry for the bluntness, but aren’t you supposed to be a writer?

    • Hi Conny,
      Thank you for your very candid comments. First of all, I agree that not every employer in Colombia is the way I described in the article. But, I dare say, that many of them are – and a lot of the response that I have received on the article confirms it. It’s not just me telling a tale about my poor neighbor or girlfriend. That being said, I’m glad to hear that you have a had a different experience working here.

      Second, I would like to congratulate you on the work ethics of your nephew and niece. Luckily, the world is still full of people like them, building a better tomorrow for all of us. But let me guess, do they live and work in one of the PIGS? (Portugal, Italy, Greece or Spain) Because the “laissez faire” mentality that you describe of their co-workers do not match the image I have of most Europeans? Again, there are no one-description-fits-all in these situations.

      Third, about the grammar I sincerely apologize if the article was hard for you to read. As a speaker of Danish, German, English, Spanish and a bit of Portuguese it can be hard to keep track of all the different rules that each language has. I am not a professional writer. This blog is a hobby of mine, and although I take it seriously, I don’t spend hours proofreading every article. Living with a Colombian doesn’t offer much help either. But don’t worry, I’ll try to improve my skills for future articles to the benefit of all readers. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

      BTW, I think you spelled “proofread” wrong in your comment 🙂

      – Patrick

  5. I’m continually perplexed at foreigners coming to other countries and being so utterly surprised at a different system to one that they were raised with. It is so utterly xenophobic to assume that things will work as they did in your home country.

    Disqualified for not speaking the language of the country you moved to? Quelle horreur! Of course you are – as you would be in the United States, France, Germany and most any other developed country as well. What did you expect? It angers me to read such privileged expectation. Learn the language of the country you want to live in.

    So they expect you to work hard. Having come from North America and worked abroad in Europe – they do there as well. Unless you’re lucky enough to have the skills to land yourself in a company with a more modern culture, most companies nowadays will run you to the bone.

    I’m not saying that the minimum wage here is fair, nor the income disparity equal – but it is what it is. And while efforts can be made to be on the front side of changing these norms (as you should do if you’re so passionate about the subject), complaining about what is – and expecting it to be like another country is just privileged bull.

  6. I know what you mean, Patrick with regards to keeping track of and adjusting according to the language you’re communicating in at the moment. Since I also have native fluency in German, English, Spanish and French, and have intermediate skills in a couple of other languages, I often forget to change my language settings on my iPad and can sometimes pay the price if I don’t pay attention.
    Thanks!

  7. Just wanted to say that I love your blog Patrick. (And I never find the posts hard to read but well-flowing, very informative, useful, funny and true to almost all my experiences I have had living in Colombia!)

    I work for a European/Colombian owned company and I am lucky that the Colombian half of the partnership is very flexible but does expect hard work, which I am happy to provide! But a lot of my friends here have described exactly the same situation that you write about.

  8. So what can a Colombian living in the US for the past 25 expect if moving back? I always wonder what it would be like to live in Colombia. Are there American companies looking to hire fully bilingual staff? After reading this article, I must say it’s scary to think that I won’t be able to work because I’m 35, in addition to all the other no -ethical “bully” type of management.

    • Start a business using some of all the know-how that you have accumulated from living in the US for so many years? How about a drive-through liquor shop or pharmacy? How about a kindergarten that complies with office hours and not one that closes at noon? How about an auto parts store like O’Reilly or Autozone where you can get quality parts for decent prices? How about taking advantage of the free trade agreement between Colombia and the US by selling high-quality US-made products to Colombians? How about giving guided tours in English to the tourists that have begun arriving and don’t speak a word of Spanish? How about bringing the next network marketing system to Colombia – Colombians LOVE network marketing and judging by my neighbor’s spending habits, I can tell that Herbalife is doing pretty darn good.
      The opportunities are limitless… You gotta put your creativity to work 🙂

  9. Hi,

    Well I’m currently between the state’s and cali as my fiance resides there once married I want to apply for residence and stay here. My main concern is work and finding a company helping that my first language is English but I’m also fluent In spanish. If anyone could give me suggestions I would really appreciate it. Thanks 🙂

    • Start a business or become a teacher 🙂
      Maybe ask Motolombia if they are looking for English speakers to help with customer service / sales. Biggest website for job listings here is Computrabajo.

      Best of luck, Patrick

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*