Easing the Travails of Trailing Spouses

Employers are shaping relocation packages to accommodate the needs of a trailing spouse or partner.

By Theresa Minton-Eversole Nov 1, 2011
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According to the relocation trade association Worldwide ERC, approximately $25 billion is spent annually on corporate relocation. Add that figure to the average recruitment cost for many professional positions—two-and-a-half-times-salary—and business leaders face significant losses each time a relocated hire or transferred employee doesn’t work out.

Now they face another growing relocation dilemma: qualified workers who are reluctant to relocate in the first place. There are many reasons why relocation might not be an attractive option for an employee. One is the loss of the second income in a dual-income household. To counter this reluctance, some HR professionals are initiating programs that help trailing spouses or partners secure employment, too.

Fifty-six percent of the respondents to the Atlas Van Lines 2011 Corporate Relocation Survey reported that employees declined the opportunity to relocate in 2009; nearly one-third reported that the number of workers declining relocation in 2010 increased. The top reasons for such decisions: 77 percent cited housing or mortgage concerns. Fifty-one percent credited family issues and family ties.

Enter Trailing Spouses

Employment services for relocating spouses or partners may help convince a sought-after prospect to relocate. Competition is hot for all jobs in this stagnant labor market, but competition for top talent is even hotter.

In September, the Society for Human Resource Management’s Leading Indicators of National Employment report—the results of a survey of HR professionals at more than 1,000 U.S. companies—showed that recruiters continue to have trouble landing candidates for key positions.

Jennifer Schramm, GPHR, and SHRM’s manager of workplace trends and forecasting, summarizes the trend: "Despite the decline in the hiring outlook, HR professionals in both [manufacturing and service] sectors are reporting increased difficulty with recruiting candidates for their key vacancies. This suggests that despite the large number of unemployed job seekers, there are potentially growing shortages in certain kinds of high-skilled jobs."

Forty percent of employers responding to the Atlas survey said the spouse’s employment almost always or frequently affects a candidate’s relocation decision. The same survey notes that about one-fifth of U.S. companies and one-third of companies with more than 5,000 employees currently offer outplacement help to spouses.

2009 U.S. Domestic Relocation Statistics

$25 billion - Amount spent annually in the U.S. on corporate relocation.
$16,110,641 - Average annual amount each company spends to transfer employees.
287,000 - Annual number of U.S. domestic transfers from Worldwide ERC member companies.

Of the 287,000:

  • Approximately one-third are new hires; two-thirds are current employees.
  • Approximately 50 percent own homes;
  • 50 percent rent.

Source: Worldwide ERC.

Today, about two-thirds of families with school-age children rely on dual incomes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That means when one spouse is offered a job requiring relocation, it’s often a mixed blessing. While the husband or wife might have an opportunity for a new position with higher pay, the so-called trailing spouse can be left jobless in an unfamiliar city, with no connections or prospects.

Tech Support

In an economy that remains tenuous, a candidate is more likely to reject an opportunity for fear that his or her partner won’t be able to find a job, said Sanjay Sathe, founder and chief executive officer of San Jose, Calif.-based RiseSmart, a provider of outplacement and recruitment solutions. In the tech-sector hub, "More employers are having a difficult time hiring their first choice for key positions, and as a result they are taking a closer look at their relocation packages." Some offer outplacement assistance for spouses through RiseSmart’s Transition Concierge service.

Every week, users of the service receive hand-picked job leads. They can tap professional resume services, one-on-one coaching and a personal job portal.

The sooner both partners establish roots in their new community, Sathe adds, the more likely it is that the relocation will succeed and that the candidate will stay long term.

RiseSmart reports that applicants using Transition Concierge find new employment in an average of 18 weeks. This compares to a national average unemployment duration of more than 34 weeks, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Regional Collaboration

Employers in lesser-known regions in the United States or those hard hit by the recession often have difficulty recruiting workers, so it’s important for employers in such regions to take a holistic approach to recruiting and relocating new hires or transferees.

Connect Sixty-Four is a collaborative effort among a number of Kalamazoo, Mich., organizations to build and strengthen the area’s professional talent pool. Through the commitment of business partners along the 64-mile stretch from St. Joseph to Battle Creek, trailing spouses get exclusive exposure to the area’s hiring agents as well as priority consideration for interviews. That commitment gives employers partnering with Connect Sixty-Four access to the area’s newest talent—and an edge in building sustainable recruitment programs.

Robyn Rosenthal, vice president of research and marketing for WSI Staffing & Recruitment Research in Kalamazoo, initiated the program in March to help employers attract and secure highly sought-after talent by helping spouses or partners find jobs.

"There is tremendous direct and indirect expense when companies recruit someone, from moving the family to lack of employee engagement due to worrying over other family issues," says Rosenthal, who has been a trailing spouse. "Housing is the No. 1 reason why [the area’s] employers can’t get people to move here, followed by the need for a second income that the relocating family might not believe can be secured once they’ve moved."

Costs of U.S. Domestic Transfers

Current employee homeowner: $90,081
New-hire homeowner: 69,020
Current employee renter: 23,497
New-hire renter: 20,168

Source: 2010 Worldwide ERC.

Recruiters and hiring agents trying to recruit out-of-area talent can offer Connect Sixty-Four as a relocation benefit to prospective employees, ensuring immediate career support for the spouse. Trailing spouses are assigned to a Connect Sixty-Four career consultant dedicated to identifying employment opportunities and facilitating job interviews, and with whom they can work with for at least six months. A spouse can begin his or her career search immediately, helping in the transition to the community. Or he or she might wait until after the move to begin the search.

Connect Sixty-Four also can be used as a retention tool; companies can extend the benefit to existing employees who are at risk of leaving because of a spouse’s lack of employment.

Bronson Healthcare Group benefits from Connect Sixty-Four. John Jones, Bronson’s senior vice president of regional and physician services, oversees operations and recruitment of staff for 250 of the organization’s providers.

In the face of a national shortage of certain types of physicians, "Most physicians have a lot of choices, so you have to have a very good health system," Jones says, and other attractions, such as a positive employment philosophy and regional appeal.

"If you go out to recruit a specialist or a primary care physician and they have a trailing spouse, then you’re scrambling to find that spouse a job in order to get that recruit to come," he added. "That’s where Connect Sixty-Four helps us."

Because the program is so new, there are few employment matches to report. However, Jones knows someone about to receive a job offer; he expects there will be more matches.

"It takes a lot of time and effort to make these connections," he admits. Connect Sixty-Four "is a feature to our recruitment package that saves us a lot of time and cost."

Strategic Partnership

The U.S. military deals with a significant number of relocations each year; the past two years have been particularly challenging due to wartime deployments and the U.S. Defense Department’s Base Realignment and Closure initiative. The Employer Partnership of the Armed Forces program—free for employers and job seekers—provides employers access to the skilled and experienced workforce pool of military veterans, members of the Reserve and National Guard and their families.

"As we move our families and troops around, it’s important to give them all the support they need—and have earned—and to give them every opportunity to use their skills," said Maj. Gen. Keith Thurgood, deputy chief of the U.S. Army Reserve. "This program helps us match [our families’] needs, skills and opportunities with the needs of the local community, and it gives employers a tenable way to support our troops and their families while at the same time strengthening America’s economy."

The program has more than 2,000 employer partners, including large and small national companies; federal, state and local agencies; and trade organizations. In September 2010, the partnership launched an online career portal tailored for the military community and often characterized as a "Monster.com for the military." The resume builder provides a military occupation translator and menus for entering military experience. Job seekers—including trailing spouses and dependents—can use key word searches to find positions they are interested in, while employers can search the database for candidates.

In addition, the online service is supported by a network of program managers who have military and industry experience. The relationships they build with the hiring managers of employer partners allow them to match candidate skills with opportunities.

Through strategic partnerships, the portal accesses about 700,000 jobs at any given time. More than 30,000 members of the Reserve components, family members and veterans have registered to take advantage of the portal since its launch.

The U.S. military considers itself a trendsetter in providing such outplacement services as those for trailing spouses. And experts agree that the private sector must adopt a similar holistic view of relocation.

With relocation and turnover costs as high as they are, companies need to do whatever they can to assimilate relocating families, Rosenthal says. "Anyone who has experienced this type of move can understand the need for this type of benefit. When organizations offer these kinds of programs, they are telling their recruits and employees that not only are they important to the company, their family is, too. And you can’t put a dollar value on that."

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