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International Assignments: Who's Going Where and Why?

What does the global-mobility landscape look like today?

According to global relocation services provider Cartus’ recent 2013 Trends in Global Relocation Survey, younger employees are most interested in taking international relocation assignments, with career development being the main reason, and sequential assignments are on the rise.

The survey’s findings shed light on who companies are moving (and where), what criteria they are using to select their mobile talent, and how they’re linking talent management to global mobility.

Assignee Demographics

The demographics of the expatriate population appear to be steady in terms of gender, with the percentages of both men (79 percent) and women (21 percent) shifting only slightly from 2012.

Generation X employees (56 percent) represent the largest age group of transferees. Baby Boomers (20 percent) posted a slight increase over 2012, while the youngest group—Millennials, or Generation Y (20 percent)—showed a significant increase.

Married expats with accompanying families are still the most common but have become a smaller percentage of global workers over the past six years. The category of those “married and traveling solo” has gained the most in percentage points over this period.

In general, younger, single male employees are showing the highest interest in global assignments, according to the survey. Women, Baby Boomers and employees with families are showing less interest in working abroad.

This profile holds true when the destination is an emerging market.

“Given the issues with schooling, housing and in many cases security, the lack of interest among assignees with families is not surprising,” the report said.

Some of the respondents’ comments include:

  • “Dubai and the Middle East have their limitations for certain lifestyles. People with family are not so open to move their family to areas with little infrastructure.”
  • “There is low interest in African regions.”
  • “Employees seem to be less interested in going to certain locations if assignment allowances do not properly reflect the hardships that exist in the new work/life environment.”
  • “As the quality of lifestyle in emerging markets can vary when compared to a developed country, it is difficult for entire families to relocate to these types of countries. We have implemented two-year assignments in these regions, which seem to be working, with a limited time in more challenging environments.”
  • “Although Millennials are interested in these types of assignments, we need highly experienced people to go in and develop our emerging markets, so sometimes the interest and the experience needed to be successful are out of sync.”
  • “Employees with families tend to shy away from emerging markets. They look for places with more stable economies and social systems, especially for reasons of safety, security and schooling. They are also concerned about fluctuations in currency and overall earning and savings power.”

Most and Least Desirable Locations for Assignments

When asked which of the developed countries generated the most employee interest for assignments, the clear choices were the U.S., U.K., Australia, Singapore and Canada.

Tier I India and China (developed cities such as Mumbai and Shanghai) ranked as the locations that workers were most resistant to relocating to among the developed countries, indicating these are still perceived as challenging markets.

For emerging-market locations, Brazil topped the list of nations to which employees most wanted to go, followed closely by the United Arab Emirates. Among the emerging-market countries that professionals were reluctant to work in are Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Russia. Notably, Tiers II-IV for both India and China show up as generating significant interest and resistance. “This is likely attributable to the fact that as booming markets, they offer significant opportunities but also major challenges in infrastructure and other areas,” the report explained. “They are likely to be perceived differently depending on the assignee’s experience, appetite for adventure, and perception of the market’s importance to company goals.”

Motivating Factors

When asked for the main reasons why employees accepted an international assignment, companies said that while attractive compensation was named by a third of respondents (34 percent), the main motivating factors for employees were career development and advancement.

“This finding is a clear indicator that now is the time for companies to really start focusing on creating synergies across HR and businesses in order to ensure assignees are no longer ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and they are aware that the company is also focusing on their career. If employees’ value is not recognized, particularly the Gen Y/Millennial population, attrition rates will continue to rise,” according to the report.

Qualifying Criteria

As for the business criteria and qualifications that organizations seek when considering someone for an international assignment, leadership potential (80 percent) and technical skills (75 percent) were cited the most. A significant number of respondents (61 percent) also noted that the criteria depended on the project. Notably, only 33 percent are factoring in minimum performance ratings in selection criteria.

Flexibility and the ability to adapt to fluid circumstances (71 percent) led the list of behavioral characteristics businesses look for when considering an employee for an assignment abroad.

Second and third on the list of behavioral traits were career orientation and the desire to advance (63 percent), and the ability to work productively in an independent setting (57 percent).

Questioned about the family criteria their organization takes into account when considering someone for an international assignment, 68 percent of respondents said family status was not considered, while 25 percent said family criteria depended on the project.

Linking Talent Management and Global Mobility

When asked whether they agreed with the statement “The impact of an international assignment on an assignee’s career is positive,” 82 percent said yes, a 30 percent increase from 2009. “This supports the feeling that companies are paying more attention to, and realizing the importance of, how international assignments support employee growth, business value and retention,” the report said.

Building effective linkages between talent and global mobility will help ensure that assignments truly contribute to company business strategies, the report said.

According to respondents, the most frequently implemented strategies were:

  • Ensuring assignment objectives are incorporated into the employee’s performance review while on assignment (62 percent).
  • Collaborating with HR to ensure that employee performance ratings are considered for all workers on overseas assignments (60 percent).

The top three strategies under consideration:

  • Tracking postassignment employee advancement (63 percent).
  • Tracking postassignment employee retention (57 percent).
  • Developing a global talent pool for future assignments (56 percent).

Sequential Assignments Rising

Not all expatriates get to return home after an assignment. Fifty-eight percent of respondents have either many (13 percent) or a few (45 percent) “global nomads” who are on back-to-back assignments. More than half (57 percent) expect the sequential-assignment trend to stay about the same, and about a third (31 percent) expect the trend to increase.

Of organizations that said they have sequential assignments, 80 percent said they were typically long term, and the most frequent demographic profile was an older employee, Generation X worker or a Baby Boomer. This supports a general trend of companies sending more senior employees on this type of assignment, often with newer employees accompanying them for professional development, the report said.

Repatriation Lacking

Responding organizations ranked repatriation and career development highest among aspects of their relocation programs they most want to improve.

More than half (58 percent) of companies said they did not offer formal repatriation programs. Of those that offer these programs, only a third (33 percent) typically offer repatriation programs for long-term assignments. The most common reasons given for not offering these programs were lack of perceived value by the organization (60 percent) and cost considerations (35 percent).

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him at @SHRMRoy

Related Articles:

Developing an Effective Global Mobility Program, SHRM Online Global HR, August 2013

International Assignments Expected to Increase in 2013, SHRM Online Global HR, May 2013

Managing International Assignments, SHRM Online Templates and Samples, July 2012

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