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How to make your move to the UK with International Consultant Helen Swithenbank

This is the fourth episode in the Robert Walters ‘How To’ podcast series hosted by Tom Andrew, Manager within the Robert Walters Operations team. The episodes in this series will be punchy, short, sharp messages to candidates about the current job market within certain sectors.  

Joining Tom in this episode is Robert Walters Group International Consultant, Helen Swithenbank. With over two decades working for the company in both South Africa and London Helen focuses on relocating South African professionals to the UK, predominantly Accountancy professionals. In this episode you will hear from Helen about her role, how she helps South African professionals relocate and what the market is looking like at the moment. Listen below to hear more. 

If you would like to get in contact with Helen or Tom please find their contact details below:

Helen Swithenbank - Helen.Swithenbank@robertwalters.com
Tom Andrew - Tom.Andrew@robertwalters.com

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Tom Andrew:
Hello and welcome to the fourth instalment of the Robert Walters ‘How To’ podcast series hosted by myself Tom Andrew. I manage the operations team down at Robert Walters London and we have a bit of a special guest, a bit of a living legend within the RW ranks with us today, Helen Swithenbank.

As a little bit of an intro, Helen has been with the group for 23 years, has worked across multiple locations London and South Africa, but has in more recent times focused on relocating South Africans in accountancy to the UK market. Today we are going to be talking about how to navigate the relocation, specifically from South Africa to the UK but obviously there are trends that we’ll be able to look at for global relocation, which is something that is becoming more and more in the spotlight thanks to Covid.

It was actually quite interesting, Helen ran an event a few weeks back/couple of months ago, it really was impressive to see the amount of people who are affected by Helens work over the years and the amount of lives that have completely changed, not just jobs, but you know moving countries as well, it doesn't get more real than that, So really take my hat off to you. It is a nice reminder that recruitment does have a very positive impact.

So can you talk us through, what is the job of international recruitment consultant? Walk me through some of the specific challenges that you deal with.

Helen Swithenbank:
I think my job kind of grew organically, so when I first started at Robert Walters, when I moved over in my 20s. I had a lot of my friends that found out that I was now living and working in London and knocking on my door and asking me all about it and how do they go about finding a job. Having worked at Deloitte in my younger years, a lot of those Clarks started knocking on my door. Suddenly we saw that there was quite a lot of traction, there were a lot of South African professionals looking to make that same move between SA and UK and I guess it just grew from there. The South African network is pretty impressive and if you do a good job and you help people, they'll always pass your details on. I think over the last two decades it's just been a case of sticking to the basics, always being honest, always being transparent, giving neutral advice dependent on someone's individual situation and just looking after their needs when it comes to making that move from South Africa to the UK, because it can be quite daunting. My job is supporting that journey, from normally when they qualify, some candidates are part-qualified, but it's at the point where they decide to make the move, then i'm there to hold their hand so to speak and to help make that move a little easier. So I guess that's what the title international consultant stands for, I guess it's caring for candidates as well. So that's kind of what I do in a nutshell.

Tom Andrew:
Very few people have had as much impact as you've had over two decades with the company, so I mean it really is impressive. I suppose the curious thing to me, is obviously you've got links in both countries, but is there a general preference for South Africans to come to London or is it either a split London or New York?  

Helen Swithenbank:
I think it's the easiest route so as you would imagine, my whole story is I’m from England, so I was born British and my father 40 years ago was looking for a better or sunnier future for his children and that's how we ended up in South Africa. It's the same for a large majority of South Africans out there, their parents or their grandparents moved out there, so they have British passports or access to ancestral visas, it's also English speaking. So I think when you're moving countries there is a lot of things to consider, and it is being around like minded people, so moving from an English speaking country to English speaking country. If you've got access to visa rights or British or Irish passport and pre 2020 and it was EU passport holders as well, so it's always been the easier move. I think when you are relocating you try and think of the path of least resistance. So yes, a lot of South Africans will consider Australia, New Zealand and that's from a lifestyle point of view, and Canada is also on that hitlist.

America has always been tough from a visa perspective and also culturally I think it's quite different and it's so vast and so far away. So yeah there's a number of factors that come into it. London is close to home as well, so for all of us when we're leaving we're always thinking about our families and it's not easy to be away from them, so the time zones are quite easy for what we have now obviously face time. You know you hop on a plane if there's a problem and it's an overnight flight and you're back with your family all being well. So it just makes sense for so many of us.

Tom Andrew:
Absolutely, so obviously the first bit of advice you need to give to somebody is, sort your visa out?

Helen Swithenbank:
Yeah they need to have the right to work or, certainly, for the most part, dependent on you know, what their background is. There's a huge demand for auditors across the firms here in the UK and they just cannot find the candidates so they go out to South Africa, with a view to sponsor and pull on top talent for people that don't have the right to work. Outside of that, I would say the majority of our clients just don't have the appetite they just want again the route of least resistance, which is find us candidates that have the right to work.

Tom Andrew:
So there is something you've mentioned there, one type of candidate, auditors, who else have you helped move over, is it purely accountants?

Helen Swithenbank:
So I think for the most part, I mean in the UK office you might have seen candidates from me as well Tom. My core base that I look after I would say is part-qualified/qualified accountants and so that would be CA’s, CIMA’s, ACCA’s. But the off spin of that is, you know every CA knows someone else, so they could have a legal mate, they could have someone in procurement. Today I got a CV for someone that's in procurement. IT we flag over to the IT desk. So yes, I have a core remit and where my focus sits for the group but i'm always open to helping and pointing people in the right direction.

Tom Andrew:
That make sense, because of your background and obviously there's only one of you so can only cover so much. I suppose the value add of someone like yourself is being that point of guidance for people trying to make the international transfer. Has the appetite increased for it do you think, since Covid has happened, and people certainly, It's interesting conversations about whether now is the right time for the talent pool to really spread out, to make a potentially general international move, rather than just UK South Africa. Do you have much visual across that shall we say?

Helen Swithenbank:
Well South Africans have been moving regardless, and I think that's where South Africa is quite unique and you know our countries going through some serious challenges at the moment. I was at a client lunch today and I was kind of having a bit of a laugh about it, because you know the Aussies and the Kiwis aren't moving anywhere. Everyone in London has stayed put. There really hasn't been much movement but South Africans are still leaving and through a pandemic. Even though we had quarantine thrown at us and you know, pay 3000 pounds to sit in a hotel for 10 days and look at four walls, they were still making the move. I think it's just that search for maybe better opportunities, an easier life and not too many daily challenges to face. I think there's always going to be that demand there's definitely been an upturn in South Africans moving out of SA, that's been purely because of the political climate and I have seen ups and downs throughout the year, you know we've had our peaks and troughs. But we're busy, there's a lot of South Africans on the move at the moment and the UK’s doors have been open and so that is where the large majority have been moving towards.

Tom Andrew:
What we're doing here is not just for listeners to hopefully get some good advice, but Robert Walters has always been about making sure that we know our talent pool as much as we possibly can, and so we thought it would be interesting to throw a few silly questions out to wrap up on each of these podcasts so you can get a little bit of a chance to get to know us. So Helen are you a dog or a cat person?

Helen Swithenbank:
I don't have either, but i'd say a dog, I had a dog once and I loved him his name was Nero and it was heartbreaking when we lost him, so I haven't really revisited that.

Tom Andrew:
Well thanks a lot for joining in today. Before we go, specifically this week, next week, who do you want to reach out to you this week?

Helen Swithenbank:
I think anyone that is contemplating taking on the big move because its massive and it takes a lot of thought and consideration. I think you need to speak to people who can relate to you and, especially, making a move away from family and South Africa, because a lot of us are thinking of it from a permanent point of view. So anyone that is on their journey to be qualified and anyone that is qualified and looking at making a move to the UK and someone that just wants some honest and neutral advice.

Tom Andrew:
Well, definitely worth reaching out to Helen if you're thinking about the SA UK move and honestly the impact that Helens had over 20 years of Robert Walters, I don’t think anyone has had the same level of impact or respect across the business, so well worth reaching out if you are looking to make the London move. Thanks a lot for joining us today Helen. 

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