A Strategy to Win the Talent War

Terry Pile

REA Career ConsultantWhen Don Fisch told his wife Susan of an opportunity with a large technology company in the United Kingdom, her response was a mixture of joy and concern. Don and Susan spent a couple of years overseas in the 1980s. It was a terrific experience, and one they hoped to repeat.

Fast-forward twenty years. The Fisch’s now had two pre-teens comfortably ensconced in the public school system. Susan was almost finished with a hard-earned graduate degree in Library and Information Services, and she was eager to apply her new skills. An overseas move undoubtedly meant postponing her career; a sacrifice she was unwilling to make.

The Fisch’s dilemma is a common one. According to the Employee Relocation Council, nearly one million Americans relocate for jobs each year. Over 75 percent of those are married and dual career families. (Over 20 percent of the accompanying partners are male and that number is growing.) Of the employees who are reluctant to move, 63 percent site partner/family resistance. With assignments overseas, the rate is even higher, and with good reason.

For most accompanying spouses/partners who are relocating abroad, finding work isn’t easy. Immigration laws for employment are complex and applications can take years to process. Careers get pushed aside as other pressing issues take over, such as finding housing and schools for the children, dealing with transportation and acclimating to a new culture and language. Once relocated, it is generally expected that the accompanying spouse/partner will continue to be responsible for keeping family life running smoothly. Careers can be put on hold for years and in some cases damaged beyond repair.

What does this mean for employers trying to do business in a global marketplace where the war for talent is heating up? According to a study by McKinsey & Company which involved 77 companies, the most important corporate resource over the next 20 years will be talent; smart, sophisticated businesspeople that are technologically literate and globally astute. However, in 15 years, there will be 15% fewer Americans in the 35 to 45-year-old range than there are now. Although the demand will increase for talent in this age bracket, the supply will diminish. Finding talent to relocate overseas will be increasingly difficult as the accompanying spouses/partners become entrenched in their careers.

The more aggressive and visionary companies are taking a non-traditional approach to recruiting and retaining talent for overseas assignments. They are aware that the success of relocating an employee abroad depends largely on the happiness of the accompanying spouse/partner. Increasingly, these companies are hiring international relocation assistance services to help with the special needs of expatriates and their families. In addition to assisting with housing, childcare and language, relocation assistance programs often help the accompanying spouse/partner explore alternatives to employment or options to enhance or advance a career. The result is a significant reduction in relocation resistance and failure rates among overseas candidates.

In the book, A Career in your Suitcase 2, REA consultant, entrepreneur and author Jo Parfitt discusses the range of challenges the accompanying spouse/partner experiences when trying to find employment in a foreign country. Career consultants who specialize in working with expatriates can help negotiate the rough waters of obtaining work permits, understanding cultural differences and determining education/certification compatibility, to name just a few of the obstacles.

Parfitt offers “Fifty Brilliant Ideas” for individuals who want to continue working while living overseas. Some of these options include self-employment, internships, additional education, telecommuting and volunteering. She points out that with the benefit of an international career consultant, the aid of technology and a bit of ingenuity, “the accompanying spouse/partner can maintain a career identity while finding adventure, vocational growth and exciting opportunities in a global economy.”

Fortunately for Don Fisch and his employer, Susan was one of the 14% of accompanying spouses/partners who did find employment overseas. During a preliminary trip to England to check out housing and schools, Susan discovered that one of the schools she was considering for her daughter had a librarian position open. She applied in May, finished her degree in June and started her new job abroad in August. “My job was miracle,” said Susan. “From my observations of other expatriate parents, it is unusual for a (accompanying) spouse to find work.”

With a shrinking workforce and the predominance of dual career families, forward thinking companies are seeing spouse/partner career assistance as an important investment to their international growth strategy. Whether it is hiring a career consultant, subsidizing educational pursuits or providing legal aid to negotiate immigration issues and work permits, the employer who is sensitive to the career needs of the accompanying spouse/partner, has the edge in the fight for recruiting the best talent available.

Terry Pile is a career consultant for Ricklin-Echikson Associates (REA), a global human resources consulting firm specializing in partner assistance services for relocating families. She also is president of Career Advisors, providing career transition and outplacement services to individuals and small businesses. www.careeradvisorsonline.com.