My first job in Panama was working as a primary school teacher. I obtained this job only by arriving at the school and offering my services as an English teacher. I was hired on the spot.
I later found out that I preferred teaching young adults/adults, and so began my employment journey in Panama. I have been here for 12 years and I’m still teaching. I also had the opportunity to work at the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) for almost two years at different intervals and have had experience working at the tertiary level.
Panama’s Halls Of Knowledge
If you work as a teacher at the university level, it is highly possible that you will also have a second or third employment somewhere else. Universities hire teachers per period, which could be a month or two, and salaries are paid by the hour.
Florida State University as well as the University of Louisville are two of the most reputable educational institutions that offer a competitive salary for a local teacher, paying at US$20 to US$35 per hour. However this is relative to the amount of money you earn, since it all depends on the quantity of classes you are given versus the total amount of hours in a period. You may need at least two classes to earn an overall salary of US$1,000.
In the 12 years that I have been working here in Panama, I have always worked at two or more places, not particularly because I need the extra revenue, but because employment turnover rate is high. Companies, as well as educational institutions, are increasingly becoming attracted to the contract-to-hire system due to the influx of cheap labor, especially from Central and South American.
Consequently, institutions have been searching for new ways to employ legally, without losing out financially. A worst case scenario is that you might not be asked to sign a contract for the next period, but, on the other hand, you will more than likely find employment elsewhere.
With this in mind, the benefits of being a native English speaker are many—more so when you have experience in the field of work that is being solicited. Regrettably, the supply of quality English instructors is low in Panama, so if you are interested in joining the workforce here, your options are endless.
It takes some patience and time to find the right job, but once you get started, you will likely meet someone who is a friend of a friend and would love to have you work for or with them.
There are many other options. As an expatriate, working as an English teacher in a private primary and/or secondary school could be the easiest way to acquire a job because of a government initiative promoting bilingual schooling nationwide, a number-one priority in the country.
However, getting the initiative under way has been a struggle because Panamanians, for the most part, are still not qualified to be English teachers. Furthermore, despite the demand for native English speakers, salaries have not been very competitive. Granted, English speakers are the best-paid teachers, but you would have to do some research to determine which schools can sustain your ideal way of life. Salaries range from US$800 to US$2,500 per month, depending on the institution.
The Do-It-Yourself Option
Another option for making money is starting your own company. After arriving in Panama, Christina Swanson decided that teaching would provide her with quick, sufficient income for her growing family, despite having a master’s degree in social work and humanities. She decided to try her luck with private universities and instantly got accepted to start teaching in the mornings.
Sometime later, an opportunity arose for her to launch her own consulting company, which included working at nongovernmental organizations and offering personalized business and general English courses in the corporate arena. Christine soon realized that becoming her own boss and generating income allowed her the freedom to explore other avenues such as translating and editing services.
In most cases, once an individual starts working and his/her potential is noticed, it only takes word of mouth to take you from step A to step B. Take Mark Taylor, a middle aged builder from Canada who arrived in Panama in 2013 to visit a friend in Boquete and see where his love of photography would take him. He had saved just enough money to support himself in this unknown and exciting venture.
Eventually, he moved permanently to Panama, taking up residence in Casco Viejo, where he met an owner of an art gallery, who consequently believed in his vision and gave him a space to exhibit his work. Taylor also promoted himself door to door, telling people about his work. Eventually, he was invited to teach woodworking classes at Florida State University in the City of Knowledge. This was all done through word of mouth.
The possibilities of working and living comfortably in Panama are endless, especially if you have the right attitude and are open to accepting new challenges while learning from mistakes. It might take some trial and error in the employment field to discover what fits best, but experience gained in the process will provide leverage and marketability in a fast-paced economy like Panama’s.
As my mother always said: “Nothing tried, nothing gained!”