By Anne Rossier, Mercer
As working populations age in most developed Western economies, sourcing talent is occurring on an increasingly global scale. The pace of technological innovation is also an important factor in the competition for the best employees, especially among younger staff who are comfortable in an ever more digital working and recruitment environment.
“Expats” used to pursue an internationally mobile career, typically at some point in their late thirties, as employers looked to experienced managers to launch or manage operations abroad, instil their company’s corporate values and culture, and expand into new markets.
As Mercer’s 2015 WIAPP survey indicated, even though assignment types and objectives continue to diversify – in the process allowing younger employees opportunities for talent development – two-thirds of respondents’ long-term international assignees’ population were between 35 and 55 years old on average.
Things are beginning to change, however. Respondents also reported that a higher proportion of their short-term assignees were 35 or younger (48%) compared to those aged 35 and 55 years old (45%) and 51% anticipated that the number of younger assignees would increase in the next two years.
Those aged less than 35 in 2015 are part of the “millennial” generation, typically defined as those born between 1980 and 2000. According to Mercer’s spot survey on millennials in the international workforce, 91% of the multinational companies employ them in their globally mobile workforce, and millennials actually represent 38% of this globally mobile workforce on average. That proportion is likely to increase, as reported by close to two-thirds of respondents.
Multinationals primarily use millennials for short-term, talent development or project assignments but 31% of respondents reported having deployed millennials on long-term assignments.
What, if Anything, is Particular with this Generation in Multinationals’ International Assignment Programs?
Let’s begin by how millennials differ from their older peers in the workforce. Millennials usually:
- Are tech-savvy: they are comfortable with mobile apps, and are used to digital working and multi-tasking.
- Have an international mind-set. They are used to travel and enjoy it: their virtual world has no boundaries, and for them neither does the real world.
- Are used to a rapidly changing world, and thus often more adaptable, and in turn may demand more adaptability from employers. They certainly expect speedy reaction and results.
- Have different values to their older colleagues: for millennials, for example, a healthy work–life balance is key; they are eager to learn, and see international experience as integral to that learning; reward is important but not the main driver.
According to our survey of employers, millennials are primarily interested in taking international assignments for career development opportunities; higher compensation was reported as a less of a catalyst. Increased segmentation of assignments is enabling employers to find a more cost-efficient balance between employee development opportunities and package richness.
International – but How International?
Discovering new countries/cultures was the second most reported main reason for millennials taking international assignments. The chart below shows that except for the top 2 destinations they are sent to or apply for – namely the US and the UK – top destinations for employee- and company-initiated moves are not in total alignment. For example, Brazil is among the top six destinations for company-initiated moves for 20% of the respondents, yet accounts for only 6% of employee-initiated moves. China was also more selected as a top assignment destination for employer- than employee-initiated moves.
Another important differentiator between millennials and older generations with regard to the mobile workforce is that women tend to be more represented in the millennial international workforce than they were hitherto. Within the 42% of respondents reporting a different gender split in their millennial assignees population, 30% reported that female assignees’ proportion is higher among millennials vs 12% for the reverse, a higher male assignees proportion. Gaining international experience before starting a family – as many women now do in their thirties – could be a big driver among the older cohort of female millennial workers; Generation Z, who are generally agreed to be those born in the mid-1990s, will soon be hot on their heels.
For all of the positive aspects that come with employing millennials, however, there are bound to be challenges, and our survey bore this out. Respondents cited issues such as the difficulty of meeting their expectations in terms of the pace of change, but many of the contentious areas mentioned – such as attraction, post-assignment retention, cost or career development – have no doubt been challenging for other generations too. Turnover could be assumed to be higher among millennial international assignees than their Generation X counterparts, but according to our survey, that was not really the case: that said, 60% of respondents planned to actively tackle millennial turnover but some of the initiatives cited – from soft skills training to career coaching and mentoring – would be of benefit to all age categories of the workforce.
So … Is There a Need to Adjust Mobility Policies and Address Millennials’ Specific Expectations?
Close to two-thirds of our survey respondents (64%) felt that adjustments to mobility policies were required, but only 16% had introduced, or were planning to introduce, changes in order to better meet millennials’ needs and aspirations. Just over 25% indicated that they had introduced, or were planning to introduce, changes to mobility polices that would also benefit millennials but which were not specifically linked to them.
85% reported that the changes they had introduced, or were planning to introduce, focused on making policies more flexible, while just over a third were updating their delivery models. Flexibility was very much the watchword, whether with regard to working hours, ensuring that both employee and employer needs were met, employment contracts, the most effective use of budgets, cost management, or catering for different lifestyles.
Millennials and International Assignments: Food for Thought
- While millennials typically have a global mindset and are keen to live and work in other locations, their relative lack of career experience can mean that the business case for sending them on assignment is weaker than that for older colleagues.
- Mobility programs play an important role in creating a pipeline of future leaders, and developmental assignments should be offered to high-potential employees early in their careers.
- Millennials do have very clear preferences about where they are willing to work, however, and as their motivations are not just financial, a generous package is unlikely to encourage them to move to (what they deem) a less attractive location.
- They are, however, motivated by opportunities to give back – by volunteering, for example – which links into how mobility fits into the employee value proposition (EVP).
- The EVP represents the total value an employee receives from an employer, and encompasses everything from cash and benefits to career potential and deriving pride, affinity or purpose from their role. The stronger the emotional connection, the stronger the bond between the employee and employer, and there is a reduced dependence on contractual aspects.
The international workforce is increasingly diverse – in terms of generation, culture, nationality, gender, family status, or assignment purpose and objective – and a “one-size-fits-all” approach is no longer appropriate. Multinational companies not only need to recognize this diversity now, but they also must prepare themselves for a world in which it will constantly evolve and trigger regular policy reviews to ensure fitness of purpose. And while part of organizations’ focus is currently on millennials, Gen Z employees are already making known their own different characteristics and expectations, as are the contract employees, whose number is growing constantly. It’s all about flexibility and agility, supported by innovative technical solutions and increased digitalization.
Contact the author: Anne Rossier