Smart Moves: Spouses abroad needn't twiddle their thumbs

HUMAN RESOURCE departments are increasingly exercised by the fact that their brightest and best may be reluctant to take up international assignments because spouses are unwilling to ditch their career. If it's a problem which now only occurs sporadically, it soon won't be.

Take Shell, for example, which, before the downsizing in the oil industry, had some 5,000 staff on expatriate assignments at any one time. A company- wide survey which Shell undertook when reviewing their expatriate policies last year, revealed that half of them would have had working wives, of which only 10 per cent would have managed to get work on an overseas posting. But among staff under 30 years old the proportion of working wives rose to 70 per cent, and among this group there was a greater reluctance to contemplate taking a career break.

So, for far-sighted companies with a substantial expatriate workforce, the launch of a new web site, by New York consultants Windhams International, which aims to help accompanying spouses find work during overseas assignments, will be greatly welcomed. Subscribing to the service it offers presents one of a variety of measures which companies can take if they are serious about tackling the dual career issue and the impact it has on expatriate recruitment.

"ExpatSpouse.com" allows partners to post their CVs to the appropriate location when looking for work. Additional support comes in the form of on-line career counselling, advice on culturally specific interviewing techniques, information on potential local job contacts and employment opportunities, and a run-down on visa and work permit regulations. There is information on volunteering opport- unities which is another way in which expatriate partners, who have no automatic entitlement to work as a dependant spouse, can keep skills up-to-scratch.

Other sections of the web site are a bulletin board, a virtual coffee shop and a family and community section which aim to help new arrivals get in touch with other expatriates as an antidote to isolation and culture shock. According to Wyndham's 1998 Global Trends Survey, it is the inability of the family to settle into a new location which causes most assignment failures.

One destination where European families will be particularly well served by the web site is the US. Assignments to this country, says Jeff Toms of the Surrey-based International Briefing Centre, which prepares expatriates for assignments to almost any location in the world, tend to have the highest failure rate. Culture shock, for Europeans at least is all the more shocking there, says Toms, because families do not expect to find the life which they are familiar with from television, quite so alien. An additional factor is stringent visa regulations. While Britain and Australia have some of the most liberal immigration regimes, as they apply to the partners of intracompany transferees, in the US trailing spouses have no automatic right to work and must apply, preferably from the home country, in their own right for a work visa. Only those with a valued skill, such as marketing or computing, together with an organisational sponsor, need apply. In some commercial centres in the US there are informal networks where companies will trawl job vacancies among themselves as a means of creating opportunities for accompanying spouses. Windhams see their web site as a way in which such networks can become more effective.

According to ECA International, the London-based association for employers of international workforces, which is an affiliate of Windhams on the expatriate spouse web site project, few large corporations have stated policies on how to deal with dual careers. Most are beginning to experience difficulties in making placements because of them. Providing 24-hour, on-line support through the internet, says Emily Tulle of ECA International, is one way in which employers, in partnership with families, can help overcome problems which are common to most overseas postings.

Subscriptions to the web site give unlimited access to both spouses and partners for $5,000 a year, while the corporate rate is $3,000 with a charge of $125 per head. In addition to giving spouses practical support, there are a number of practices which companies would be wise to observe. Foremost among these is to involve spouses at the recruiting stage so that the accompanying partner is fully aware of time-scales, lifestyle, and employment prospects.

For further information on Expatspouse.com, contact Sheri Kurz at Windham International (tel: 001-212-647-0555) or e-mail: expatatwindhamsint.com

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