Three reasons why expat jobs will never be the same

2 February 2024 | Community in Action

This image shows a lady carrying her suitcase next to the airport. This photograph is used for descriptive purposes, to complete a broad image of expats.

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Expatriates, or expats as they are often called, have been a key source of intercultural understanding, skills and best practices in institutions ranging from corporations to academia and diplomacy. Overseas workers on contracts from their home countries, the narrow legal definition of an expat, have relocated to international jobs, worked with local people, learned the basics of the local language, habits, legal system and more, then repatriated and shared their experiences at home.Interestingly, the expat positions of the future will be fewer, harder and require much more specific profiles than decision-makers so far experienced. This is the main message of my speech I will deliver at the SIETAR Europa Congress in Lille, France this June 4-8, ahead of which I would like to share the main reasons why, and a few ways that decision-makers can prepare themselves for selecting and developing expatriate talent in the near future.

Economic slowdown in top expat locations 

Expatriate assignments have been popular for very specific combinations of reasons. Apart from top economies like the USA, Switzerland and Japan, many popular expat destinations have been developing economies with fast-growing GDPs, low living costs and consequently lots of opportunity to save money. But when post-pandemic recoveries fall behind expectations in some locations, enthusiasm for overseas jobs deflates for two reasons. First, slower-growing economies mean slower growth for the firm, and consequently more modest performance-based pay for expats. Second, when combined with inflation and supply chain disruptions, living costs rise, expat families can save less. Companies that want to send their best talent abroad must find new ways to motivate candidates.

Technology enables global work from home

For the last two decades, the majority of expats have been technical managers in charge of bringing imported solutions to developing economies: inspecting, installing, testing, training, supervising and then inspecting again. Technologies like automated warehouses, robotics, additive manufacturing (“3D printing” for non-engineers like me) and ERP systems radically cut the technical managers needed for large-scale operations. Then came the pandemic, and firms had to quickly find access to operating those systems remotely. Virtual work technology connected technical experts, virtual meetings replaced managers working together on site. As a result, the post-pandemic era requires very few expats in technical positions, and even fewer than before in business development, strategy, investment or other fields where personal connections are essential.

The pandemic made us more fearful of foreigners

Some negative consequences of the pandemic are more subtle and harder to reverse. A halt to international travel was understandably an important measure to stop the virus from spreading. Unfortunately, the illness was not the only harm that spread around the world. Government and media from different countries accused one another of starting, spreading, and using the pandemic as a political weapon. Quarrelling nations often punished one another with stricter visa policies and withdrawing from international cooperation including conferences and educational partnerships. Apart from a few digital nomad hubs like Portugal and Singapore, most countries toughened their entry regulations for foreign students, workers, academics and dependents. The unfortunate result is that the world today is poorer in both global mobility and cultural openness than before the pandemic. Companies that send people abroad must select them more carefully and offer more support while they are overseas.

In my experience as an executive coach, many decision-makers already calibrate their human resources strategy to an era where there might be fewer expats, but a notable minority of talented people will still be highly motivated to work abroad and immerse themselves in foreign cultures far beyond technical exchange. In my speech, I will share some of the smartest responses in finding, selecting and preparing managers for overseas positions. 

Until then, please follow us here on the Curiously Intercultural web-platform and reach out to me if you would like to discuss any of the covered topics in more detail. To read the 2024 SIETAR Europa Congress’s full agenda, contact the organisers and register for the event, please visit https://lille24.sietareu.org/  

See you in Lille, France on June 4-8!

Author: Gabor Holch

Image Source: Gustavo Bring, Pexels

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