Expats - a dying breed?

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One of the greatest challenges facing modern companies is that as the relentless trend towards globalisation gathers pace, it is becoming ever more difficult to entice managers into taking up overseas assignments.

This is largely because so many of the executives being selected for international postings have partners with careers that are difficult to transfer to other countries. As many as 59 per cent of the 270 international organisations surveyed for a new report by PricewaterhouseCoopers reported that the "dual-career" issue was the main reason for employees turning down an assignment.

But the survey, International Assignments: European Policy and Practice, also found that when assessing employees' suitability for international assignments, the problems posed by the increasing likelihood of managers having working partners are well down companies' lists of criteria.

The result, according to PwC, is that "employers faced with motivating employees to work internationally are increasingly aware their existing policies can't cope with the demands and diversity of the modern workforce".

So what should companies do about it? One solution is moving away from the old-style full-scale move overseas and creating short-term and "virtual" assignments. Indeed, short-term assignments in UK companies have grown by 58 per cent since 1997, while 64 per cent of British companies now have employees managing international responsibilities from their home countries.

In short, a new type of expatriate is emerging. With the proportion of women involved rising only from 6 per cent to 9 per cent of the total of 65,000 workers over the past two years, the expatriate is still likely to be male. But, in place of the manager taking a wife and family for a lengthy stay in some splendour in a far-flung post, as in the glory days of the likes of Shell and Unilever, the modern international manager is likely to be making frequent business trips.

"International human resource strategy needs to take account of this trend," insists PwC. The firm identifies diversity as being "at the heart of today's expatriate needs". Indeed, the report points to the importance of flexibility, in terms of what is offered to individuals to entice them to accept assignments.

To date, according to the PwC report, just 7 per cent of companies have gone down this route. But a further 20 per cent are considering taking an option where the varying elements might typically include an incentive premium, location allowance, spouse allowance, assistance with children's education and medical insurance, as well as the more traditional benefits, such as accommodation, cost-of-living allowance and car.

PwC claims that this added expenditure can be balanced by cutting costs in such areas as administration and payroll as a result of outsourcing such functions. For this reason, the firm is urging employers to go further. For example, it suggests that in the recruitment process, they could think more carefully about the career interests of partners, even to the extent, in some cases, of providing training and development before postings are taken up, so that partners can adopt careers that can be carried out virtually - by means of information and telecommunications technology.

Accordingly, the report states: "Overall, we believe there has probably never been a better time for the partner and family accompanying an expatriate on assignment. Many companies are more willing to spend money on making the assignment a better experience for the partner."