Bridging the skills gap: Talent SW@Ps at Arup

Competition for skills, tightening compliance frameworks, securing buy-in for international assignments, cost containment, and exhortations to “step up and take the lead” are all occupying global mobility’s in-tray.

Illuminated bridge
It was in this context that Mark Derksen, Arup’s associate director of international mobility, inspired delegates at June’s Global Expansion Summit.He described how he is resolving these issues at the multinational engineering and professional services firm. Demonstrating his own dynamic leadership in the process, Mr Derksen is helping to launch a successful new self-initiated, skills-swap scheme.

Out with the old programme…

Defining the starting point for change, Mr Derksen explained how Arup’s previous career development programme was too cumbersome. “Millennials in particular wanted opportunities quicker than we could offer previously,” he noted.Mr Derksen also recalled how the scheme risked exacerbating, rather than relieving, key talent shortages in this innovative, skills-intensive company.In a challenge familiar to many in global mobility, host locations like Australia proved popular. Assignees were staying on and localising at the end of the assignment, leaving costly skills gaps in the home location.With Arup valuing creativity, problem solving and actively encouraging employees to push boundaries, Mr Derksen took the initiative to work closely with line managers and colleagues around the world to develop and roll out a pilot global mobility talent-swap programme.

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In with the new…

Listening to colleagues’ concerns, and remaining mindful of the need to support individuals’ engagement with Arup and their career aspirations, Mr Derksen launched the new, self-initiating SWAP (Share Work and Places) talent scheme, which Arup brands as SW@P, last year.Core to the new approach is Arup’s belief that all its highly educated 13,000 employees across its 90 locations in 42 countries are considered high-potential talent. “I think we have had such a good start with this new platform because we do not officially identify people as high potential,” reflected Mr Derksen. “All our employees are one talent.”The new mobility programme reinforces this broader, more inclusive view of talent. It is open to everyone in role grades three, four or five, educated to Bachelor-degree standard with a minimum of 12 months’ service with Arup, and able to commit to a six to 18 month assignment on an unaccompanied basis.Critically, the programme is for people who can present a strong justification for an international move. “SW@P encourages people wanting to go on assignment to present to their line managers a unique business case for doing so,’ says Mr Derksen. “It means really thinking about the programmes they are working on, from both their own perspective and the business.”

A SW@P approach to skills mobility

The SW@P approach helps individual employees to take control of their own career and scope out developmental roles in Arup’s business units around the world. It balances business and individuals’ aspirations, builds relationships, and creates business and skills synergies in the process.“We are providing the platform for Millennials to match their career goals with our business needs,” explains Mr Derksen. “This is a stepping-stone to understanding Arup’s internal culture. It also accelerates their career development.“We want to encourage people to build a wider network and be exposed to other cultures and different ways of working. We believe that the firm and our clients will gain from the cross-border networks our people build. We need people with international experience, people who demonstrate borderless behaviour and are willing to SW@P.”

Career- and business-enhancing self-initiated moves

Mr Derksen presented the more streamlined, business- and employee-focused pilot scheme to Arup’s c-suite executives and the management board last summer. Still in its very early days, Arup’s SW@P programme is set to fortify the company’s skills pipeline, enabling it to tap into ready-talent for the range of mobility programmes Arup offers in supports of its business.“We can create profiles in this pool, helping us during bids and projects to identify the right candidates for the job,” says Mr Derksen. “By having the candidates showing their interest in an international assignment, we already know that they are willing to go."

Identifying opportunities

To begin the SW@P process and to match people to places, each of Arup’s regions publishes a number of SW@P opportunities, which interested employees can apply for. Candidates can also find a SW@P partner and create their own assignment. In both cases, group leaders ultimately decide who to appoint based on the business case provided by the candidates.At this point of offer, Arup’s international mobility team explains the terms and conditions of the SW@P to assignees, and parties sign the letter of assignment. Then assignees swap.The programme is proving more cost-effective, has less red-tape and offers a quicker process compared to previous programme. Assignments are typically for six months to 18 months. For assignments over six months’ duration, the company pays for these on a host-based approach. People on assignments of less than six months stay on their home payroll and receive a host housing allowance.Arup also supports assignees to stay on their home pension and social security arrangements where possible. They offer compliance assistance, air travel according to the host location travel policy, two days’ paid time off to relocate at the start and end of the assignment, and an excess baggage allowance to enable the move to happen.While the SW@P programme is explicitly for unaccompanied assignments, Arup believes the self-selecting approach is helping to create a more diverse talent pool. “The SW@P network is more objective and will hopefully have a positive effect on diversity as well."

Mobility leading from the front

This refocusing of global mobility more keenly around business need and individual aspiration to improve its speed and responsiveness is the direction of travel for skills deployment at Arup.“This is the first step towards change we are going through now. I want global mobility to be more at the front of what is needed in terms of sharing skills around the world.”
Fiona Murchie, Relocate Global’s managing editor, was moderator and chairperson of the Global Sourcing, Logistics and Mobility sessions at the Global Expansion (GXP) Summit in London.

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