The profile of the typical assignee and assignment type is changing. Long-term assignments are increasingly being replaced with alternative assignment types, and young singles are replacing accompanied expatriates. But what is the impact of such changes? Sue Shortland reports.
Long-term assignments are declining in use, according to the latest survey from Cartus. This is not a recent phenomenon, but the continuation of a trend that has been in evidence since 2007. Yet, while long-term assignments (between a year and three to five years in duration) are on the wane, alternative assignment types are increasing in use. Shorter and more flexible assignments, including extended business travel, are becoming particularly popular.
Another change in international assignment activity relates to the profile of assignees. The trend is to use young and single people; Cartus reports that, since 2007, the under-30 age group has increased from 19% to 29%, while singles have increased from 29% to 42%. The 50+ age group`s expatriate participation has remained broadly unchanged.
The assignee gender profile is also changing. Women comprised 21% of the expatriate population in 2007; it is notable that this figure has now declined to 19%. The family profile has changed even more significantly; in 2007, some 53% of expatriates were married and accompanied; today, this figure has fallen to only 38%.
Cost and career drivers
These trends appear to indicate a move away from the traditional type of expatriate and assignment profile having younger, unaccompanied assignees on short-term or extended business-trip-style mobility is less costly than paying for accompanied, long-term family mobility.
The assignment type selected is driven by business needs and demands, so it is interesting to note that there is also a trend away from career-development long-term assignments and a corresponding rise in career-development-driven short-term assignments. Interestingly, career development is the primary reason for an employee to accept an assignment, so employers need to bear this in mind if the recession is forcing a re-evaluation of career moves.
Nonetheless, long-term assignments are still used for management and leadership roles and for knowledge transfer, thus differing from short-term assignments, which are primarily project and technical-skills-transfer driven.
In 2007, organisations expected significant growth in their use of all types of international assignment. Given the economic downturn, it is not surprising to find that actual assignment activity has not met their expectations nonetheless, assignment activity has increased over the last three years. Looking forward to the next two years, companies have moderated their growth expectations, but only expect long-term assignments to decrease in usage, with budget constraints seen as the primary driver for this.
Return on investment
A key issue of focus not only concerns cost reduction via modifying assignment types and the policy elements supporting them, but also paying close attention to return on investment (ROI). Talent management, therefore, becomes of paramount importance: the right person is needed for the role, regardless of the assignment type being used. Interestingly, although organisations are keen to see ROI, very few actually measure it, owing to difficulties in defining issues and terms and actually developing appropriate metrics to carry out measurement.
Hard and soft costs must be taken into account. An issue to consider here concerns how the assignment type, and the assignee profile, might affect ROI. Short-term assignments, for example, provide international experience, but may not develop cultural competence. Hence, they may not necessarily fully develop an individual, as would be expected under their strong career-development rationale. Thus, although they save costs in terms of the length of time an individual has to be supported (and, in addition, unaccompanied assignments do not require the support of family on assignment), the overall benefits derived from the assignment, for both the individual and the company, may be less.
The increased use of extended business travel is another case in point. The tiring and demanding nature of continual travel and separation from family and friends is wearing and stressful for individuals. Once again, the hard costs of supporting a full expatriate assignment are saved, but the hidden costs of productivity require consideration.
Overall, there is no easy answer to weighing up the pros and cons of using non-traditional assignment types and assignees; careful thought must be given to the advantages and disadvantages, and these aligned with business objectives when assignment decisions are made.
Read the full report at www.cartus.com
Don't miss the Autumn issue of Re:locate, in which we'll have a feature on talent management plus a roundup of the latest conferences and surveys.