Partner employment access – the triple win

Dual careers have long been reported as a barrier to global mobility. In 2021 the Permits Foundation – a lobbying body that seeks to improve work access for international assignees’ partners – celebrated its 20th anniversary hosting an online conference representing host nations, employers, assignees and their partners.

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Think Global Peopl Spring 2022 Issue
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Two decades have passed since the launch of the Permits Foundation – a body comprised of sponsoring employers seeking improvements to the work visa status of accompanying partners of international assignees. A number of lobbying successes have been achieved over these 20 years in enabling accompanying partners to work in the host countries where their partners are employed on an international assignment. Despite this, many countries (especially in newly-emerging economies) where employers are growing their businesses do not facilitate partner employment. Countries reported as being especially problematic include China, India, Singapore and South Africa – so much remains to be done.Click here to access the Permits Foundation International Dual Careers Survey 2021 - Permits Foundation are extending the deadline to their partner survey until 28 Feb 2022.

The triple win

Employers must be able to recruit and deploy high potential talent globally. This is especially so when growing a business in a developing nation where there may not be the required skills available locally and expatriates are needed to fill skills gaps as well as train up local people. When selecting individuals for expatriation, organisations will likely face resistance from employees if partner employment is impossible. Thus, for employers, the possibility for partners being able to gain employment in the host nation enables them to draw upon a far wider talent pool and a greater variety of assignment options than if only the expatriate can work. It is clearly in employers’ interest that partner employment does not present a barrier to expatriation of their chosen assignee.Employees with working partners need to consider whether they are prepared to undertake accompanied international assignments if this means giving up one of the couples’ careers, incomes and future benefits (such as pension) through a break in employment. The alternative of a single status assignment where the partner remains at home (for instance through the use of short-term, commuter, frequent flyer style mobility) is known to be less successful in developing assignees’ cultural competence and is potentially damaging to family relationships. Such unaccompanied mobility may therefore not prove to be an attractive alternative to talent deployment for either employers or couples. Such mobility may also not suit the nature of the work required in the host country, for instance if a continual, longer-term presence is required.Couples today are used to both partners holding their own financial and career independence; the days of the ‘traditional’ expatriate with an accompanying non-working spouse (usually the wife) in tow are long gone. Both partners want to pursue meaningful careers and hold financial independence. If there is no possibility of obtaining a work visa, expatriates’ working partners face a major change in their identity and lifestyle through what might be a lengthy period of unemployment in a foreign land where they have few, if any, friends and connections.
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Although it has long been reported by employers that not enabling partners to work and pursue their career abroad represents a major barrier to global mobility, why should host nations offer up employment opportunities to incoming foreign nationals potentially at the expense of local labour market unemployment? The answer is simple. Many economies are struggling to find skilled and highly qualified workers; open vacancies lead to a brake on economic growth. Global competition has become increasingly fierce and nations need skilled people and to move towards full employment to realise economic imperatives. Skilled foreigners can help to train and develop locals, thereby raising the capability of the resident labour force. It is therefore relevant for national governments to consider the value that skilled accompanying partners can bring.There is therefore a triple win in evidence from enabling partner employment – nations, employers and assignees/families all benefit from favourable work visa regimes for accompanying partners. In essence, there is an ‘ecosystem’ effect in play with the fortunes of organisations and their business success driving economic growth within the host countries in which they operate. Inter-related with this is the deployment of skilled talent – flowing from both individuals directly-employed by the expatriate sending organisation and from the skills and capabilities that accompanying partners can bring to the host country labour market via local employment opportunities. For employees and their employed partners, international work experience helps to develop cultural competence and improve leadership capabilities, thereby enhancing future career success.

Partner employment and the pandemic

The pandemic has brought a new twist to the international dual career/partner employment agenda. Organisations have come to experience greater resistance from employees and their families to international mobility due to health and well-being concerns. In addition, health regulations and responses by governments to the pandemic have led to restrictions on international travel. This has resulted in various outcomes including split families, assignees confined to their home countries, assignees working from home in the host location, or assignees working from a third location. There has also been evidence of early assignment returns.Virtual assignments have become more commonplace and where these have operated from the home country, this has reduced pressure on employers and couples to access foreign partner employment. Business has recognised that international travel may not be necessary at the same level going forward as pre-pandemic. Notwithstanding this, employers are cognisant that virtual assignments do not develop cultural competence and international leadership capabilities to the same extent as living locally on assignment. There is an important balance to be struck between building a global culture and international vs. virtual mobility.The pandemic has created an opportunity to increase assignee diversity as working virtually means that minorities who otherwise might be precluded from taking up an assignment (such as LGBTQ+ assignees who cannot undertake accompanied mobility with same sex partners due to legal restrictions) can do so. There is also a gendered aspect to international mobility: women are reported as less likely to take up an accompanied assignment with a male partner than vice versa as male breadwinners are potentially less willing to give up their careers. Virtual assignments thus potentially assist women to gain international capabilities.It is important to note though that while expatriate diversity might be widened, the quid pro quo is that the experience gained by these minorities via virtual international working does not equate to that gained from on the ground experience. Potentially this might still lead to ‘traditional’ expatriates gaining the leadership competencies that advance their careers further than those undertaking virtual mobility.

The wider family

A new trend identified by Permits Foundation concerns the employment prospects of older accompanying family members such as 18-19 year old children. During the pandemic, families opting to relocate abroad may not wish to leave children behind due to the potential for split families to become separated for indeterminate periods. This raises the question of work visa status for accompanying young adults.In addition, the definition of accompanying ‘partner’ is widening and becoming more inclusive. Decades back the partner was traditionally a ‘spouse’ or a ‘life partner’ of the opposite sex; today the accompanying individual may be a family member (such as a sister or other relative) who supports the assignee (for example as a carer for a dependent child). Again this raises the issue of employment opportunities for such accompanying individuals.

Looking ahead

The Permits Foundation has raised the strategic importance of dual careers for businesses for many years now, highlighting how business goals can be compromised if action is not taken to support accompanying working partners. It is notable that the language has changed over the past two decades from a focus on supporting partners to pursue ‘dual careers’ to ‘partner employment’. Recognition that ‘dual career’ objectives may not be possible is giving way to emphasis on action to promote ‘employment’ objectives.Younger generations entering the expatriate arena will simply not be willing to accept one partner giving up their employment and building a career from a series of work opportunities. Families are increasingly non-traditional in their composition as well. Added to this working patterns are more varied with greater emphasis on self-employment.Organisations will need a shift of mind-set going forward to treat couples/families as entities in the international assignment process. Individuals selected for assignments are part of families. Employment access is therefore important to a range of individuals beyond the assignee. Action to improve it is critical if organisations are to benefit from global talent deployment, nations are to gain skilled workers and individuals are to be happy and fulfilled. Future emphasis must rest on supporting this ‘ecosystem’ and creating the employment access triple win.Click here to access the Permits Foundation International Dual Careers Survey 2021 - Permits Foundation are extending the deadline to their partner survey until 28 Feb 2022.
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Read more about the Great Return in the Spring 2022 issue of Think Global People.

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