Dual-Career Challenges for the Expat Family: Why Expat Employers Should Be Concerned

Most people believe that an international assignment with a multinational footing the bill is highly sought-after amongst corporate executives. However, this is far from the truth.
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Most people believe that an international assignment with a multinational footing the bill is highly sought-after amongst corporate executives. However, this is far from the truth. Americans turn down expat posts at a rate of 94%, with 70% of these refusals due to a spouse's refusal to give up their job or career. Therefore, in an increasingly competitive global economy, multi-nationals have a vested interest that solutions are found to what in global mobility jargon is referred to as the "dual-career challenge."

According to the Permits Foundation, 90% of spouses are employed before an international move with only 35% employed afterwards, even though ¾ of these spouses wish to work. While the most obvious obstacle for accompanying spouses in finding a job abroad is obtaining a work permit, the work permit question is always a catch-22 situation. One cannot get a work permit without a job offer, but one cannot get a job offer without a work permit. For this reason, most efforts by multi-nationals in the past decades have concentrated on resolving the work permit challenge, believing this to be a cure-all solution.

Unfortunately, the work-permit issue is only the first of many obstacles the trailing spouse faces in her (or his) efforts to find a job or maintain a career abroad. These expats lack professional networks, face language and cultural barriers, possess job qualifications and/or licenses which are not recognized in the host country and very few local companies are willing to hire trailing spouses who might be forced to move from the host country at a moment's notice.

To make matters worse for the job-seeking spouse, career assistance is rarely forthcoming from expat employers, leaving expat spouses to fend for themselves in finding a job abroad. As stated in Permits Foundation's International Survey Summary Report, "most employers prefer to ignore spousal employment issues."

The good news is that developments on the Internet in the past five years have opened up many new opportunities for the accompanying spouse. Online jobs are an increasing possibility, as well as online learning. And, for those who possess an entrepreneurial spirit, networking on the Internet has opened up a whole new world of opportunities.

Furthermore, for those looking for a traditional corporate job, several job search websites targeting expat populations have been created in the past few years. One such company is Expat Network, a UK-based organization for expats seeking work and assistance overseas, whose services cover "from showcasing the best jobs across the globe to sending the mother-in-law on a spa weekend." Other such websites are Expat Exchange, a job search and networking site which boast a growing community of hundreds of thousands of expats across the globe; Expat Careers which "addresses the genuine needs of employers and recruiters who required a single site to advertise managerial, executive and expatriate positions from all industries and locations within a single job search platform;" and Overseas Jobs which "has been working for well over a decade to provide employers easy access to a wide, targeted audience of job seekers."

While the aforementioned have improved the situation for trailing spouses in finding jobs abroad, they do not address the emotional challenges trailing spouses face. As Robin Pascoe writes in A Moveable Marriage: "We've always associated grief with the loss of a loved one, not with the loss of something intangible like a career or an identity. But make no mistake. Grief is all about loss, and who can deny how much is lost when a career is abandoned? During a relocation, a healthy woman will experience the different stages of the grief spectrum."

Pascoe quotes Yvonne McNulty (www.expatresearch.com) who states that "I was not actually mourning the loss of a career, but grieving over the loss of the choice to have one." And, Pascoe further explains that "The price of relocation to follow a husband's career is eerily similar to the costs incurred by jumping onto the so-called Mommy Track. The identity crisis is almost exactly the same."

Leslie Morgan Steiner explores the identity crisis that women across the global are facing as they enter the work-force en masse, in her book Mommy Wars. She sums up the inner conflict of these women when she states: "I never hated other mothers. My anger came from years of competitiveness with other women, and my own internal agony of seeing, in stay-at-home moms, what I was missing at home when I was at work, and in ambitious working moms the career sacrifices I was making by working part-time."

The dual-career challenge of the expat family, and the difficulties it poses for expat employers in recruiting expat employees will continue to plague HR departments for decades to come, with no easy answers or quick fix solutions. In order to rise to these challenges expat employers and global mobility service-providers need to start "looking outside the box" in the services they are developing and offering to job-seeking trailing spouses.

A comprehensive and effective solution to the dual-career challenge of the expat family needs a holistic approach; one which empowers the estimated 5+ million, global labor-force of trailing spouses. These women (and increasingly men) are highly educated, with work-life experiences that are not recognized, nor taken advantage of, in traditional labor markets. Given the ways and means, these job-seekers can make positive and unique contributions to industries across the globe, as well as be instrumental in providing a comprehensive solution to the adaptation and integration of the expat family.

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