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Shrinking World, Broadening Horizons
Changes in International Relocation in the 21st Century

By: Michael Cadden, Managing Director, Living Abroad LLC and Andrew Kittell, Director of Corporate Relations, ACS International Schools

As this industry knows all to well, international relocations have always meant change, and not just in the currency, language and groceries expats use, but also in terms of working life, culture and obviously where these employees and their families' call home. Now, however, the nature of international relocation itself is changing faster than ever before and new research into shifting industry trends shows families are having to adjust to significantly shorter and more frequent international assignments than just a decade ago.

Ten years ago only six percent of assignments required an employee to relocate for less than a year, but, by 2005, over forty percent of such assignments were for less than 12 months, according to industry benchmarking research undertaken by Living Abroad LLC. The changing nature of international relocations seems to have increased employee's apprehension about taking an overseas assignment, and the difference most likely to impact expats and their families has been the shrinking length of assignments.

Employees today are relocating more often and for shorter periods of time: the average length of an international position has dropped from two and a half years compared to three years in 1995. Although multinational companies are prospering because of the experience frequent international movers bring to the job, their families can often be the first to suffer from recurrent upheaval. Parents face hard personal and career choices when considering an international relocation, and without proper planning, family issues can lead to failed assignments or unhappy employees. Is it any wonder, then, that concerns about spouses and children are holding back more and more employees from the potentially life enhancing experience of an international move?

Stay-At-Home Moms and Dads

In the last decade, family heads with the opportunities to relocate abroad have become increasingly wary of taking a global post because of the potential effects these short, frequent moves can have on their families. Since 1995, there has been a thirty-three percent increase in employees who decline global posts because of concerns over family adjustment and a fifty-seven percent increase in employees declining these positions due to spousal resistance.

This finding speaks to a common concern at the heart of so many cases of failed or declined international relocations � the effect an international relocation will have on the partners' career. In some ways, shorter assignments are a positive development for the spouse, as they can allow him/her to take a relatively short career break without drastically affecting long-term professional goals. Another option that has become more common for employees managing short-term assignments is for the spouse to remain home and continue with their career for the year or so their partner is working abroad. This trend is reflected in the decreasing number of families relocating together over the last ten years, from 64 to 55 percent. However, this living apart can be a source of significant stress, because in addition to maintaining a long-distance marriage the remaining partner is often left to bring up the children as a virtual single parent.

Even with spousal concerns aside, a relocating employee's chief concern is often for their children. They worry about their children not adjusting to their new school, falling behind academically because of the move, or having to say goodbye to new friends that they have only just gotten to know. With the frequency and length of relocations today, it is not uncommon for the child of a relocated employee to attend schools in five to seven locations before their high school graduation. More parents than ever before are citing these frequent disruptions to their children's education as a reason against internationally relocating. In 1995, two-thirds of employees who turned down an international assignment cited their child's education as the reason for choosing not to move. Today, that figure has increased by 27 percent, and 84 percent are not convinced that their children will be able to achieve the same level of education excellence overseas. Despite the progress international education has made in the last decade, educational standards abroad remain a key concern for parents.

Taming the Trend

These findings should not be a source of anguish. Rather, they provide valuable insight into how international relocation is changing and how families, global corporations, and relocation advisers can address these common concerns and make an international move a life enhancing experience for employee, spouse, and child.

Whether a child is adjusting well to the move overseas can often make or break the experience for the whole family, and the child's school is a key factor in how well they will settle into their new life.

Today, there are a range of educational options to ensure children receive consistency in their education as well as specialized counselling and support to help them master the major changes they face. In particular, international schools offer global qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) program that provide students with a globally accepted qualification, giving them flexibility when the time comes to choose a college.

In addition to providing a widely-accepted qualification, the IB program offers students studying abroad an education which reflects their international experiences, with a commensurate focus on developing foreign language skills while maintaining and improving their native language.

From a social and pastoral point of view, international schools are experienced helping recently relocated children and spouses overcome any post-move social isolation. For instance, many schools pair newly relocated children with classmates who have been through similar experiences, and engage spouses in the community through well-organized and dynamic parent teacher associations. The role of the international school as a social focal point for both parent and child helps expats build a fresh support network in their new home.

While there have been significant changes for employees relocating in the last decade, the countless positive opportunities an international move opens up for them and their families remain constant. This research presents us with the opportunity to address these new challenges in global relocation, and demonstrates that the positive aspects of international relocation need to be reiterated to those on the cusp of such an opportunity. After all, the employee is poised to gain invaluable experience and respect within their company, children are able to learn in a multi-lingual and multi-national classroom, and partners can explore career and community opportunities in a foreign land. Even more, moving abroad as a household allows the whole family to share the common experience of life in a different culture. It is vital that both the relocating employee and spouse fully understand the vast support solutions available to ease their family through an international relocation, as the positives of experiencing life as an expatriate so often outweigh any potential pitfalls.

Michael S. Cadden is a principal and Managing Director, Operations, of Living Abroad LLC (www.livingabroad.com). You can reach Michael at michael.cadden@livingabroad.com

Andrew J. Kittell is the Director of Corporate Relations for ACS International Schools in North American. He can be reached at ACSUSOffice@aol.com. The American Community Schools, England is now known as ACS International Schools. www.acs-england.co.uk.

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