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I’m an expat, get me outa here

Every quarter, Antal International, surveys nearly 14,000 organisations around the world to monitor trends …

Every quarter, Antal International, surveys nearly 14,000 organisations around the world to monitor trends in employment in key economies. According to Graeme Read, Group Managing Director at Antal, one key finding is that the “golden age” for western expat workers is well and truly over.

The last survey, published in July reported some good news at last. After several years of turmoil following the financial crisis of 2007, employment markets finally appear to be establishing some form of stability once again. Current hiring levels around the globe were up slightly since the last report in February from 50 percent of companies surveyed to 52 percent now, and 52 percent was also the proportion of businesses intending to hire during the coming three months.

However, it will come as no surprise that the general recovery of the global employment market is not consistent around the world. Activity in Western Europe was lower than in any other region with only 39 percent of respondents intending to increase headcount in the coming quarter. In the Asia Pacific region the figure was 66 percent and in the Middle East 68 percent. The message appears to be a clear one. The established economies of the West are no longer the centre of growth and development they used to be and that is unlikely to change significantly for the foreseeable future.

Now the real action is happening elsewhere. In Brazil, for example, 70 percent of employers are planning to recruit at professional or managerial level in the next three months, in China 70 percent and in India a staggering 80 percent. Forget Horace Greeley’s famous injunction to “Go West”. His modern day equivalent would be firmly pointing south or east instead. Given the parlous state of many Western economies in the wake of the financial crisis and the continuing turmoil in the euro zone, the idea of a move to a more favourable job market is becoming increasingly attractive. But how realistic is it to find an expatriate post in the post-downturn world?

The ‘golden age’ of expatriate working is most definitely over. While the management of multi-national companies just a decade ago was still dominated by Westerners, and in particular by citizens of the US and UK, we’re now well into a trend towards localisation. Companies in China and India are working particularly hard at attracting back members of the countries’ worldwide diaspora to feed the need for managers with international experience. And on the campuses of top business schools major companies are targeting new MBAs from emerging markets to staff their local operations. The cosmetics giant, L’Oreal, for example, recruits students from schools such as Harvard, Wharton, HEC and IMD and gives them their initial exposure to the business in Paris or New York before sending them home. “We are deeply interested in talent acquisition for our developing markets,” says Francois de Wazieres, the company’s director of international recruitment, “because our sales in ‘new markets’ will very likely exceed those in western Europe this year and our CEO is already talking about us reaching as many as one billion customers there.”

Localisation does not mean that the doors to the new jobs markets are completely closed to expatriate Westerners. But to remain in demand, managers and professionals from the west will need to demonstrate real understanding of local culture and conditions and, perhaps most importantly, will need to deliver real value to their hosts. And the emphasis of this value now seems to be shifting from conventional management and direction to the enabling of change.

A good example of this is in China where expatriates, particularly those with experience of large Western businesses, are providing valuable support in the development of middle managers. According to Jorgen Thorsell of the international leadership development institute, Mannaz, many Chinese organisations need to migrate their middle managers from a ‘command and control’ structure to one where they become leaders in their own right. “Under the surface Chinese organisations are actually less autocratic than they may first appear,” he says. “Despite the strict hierarchical structure there is more in the way of consultation and sharing than one might expect.” Thorsell argues that, if handled with cultural sensitivity by expatriates with relevant experience, this could be the start of a more flexible model of management that will enable Chinese businesses to challenge western competitors on equal terms. The era of the Western expatriate as controller or director may be coming to an end. But the time of these professionals as enablers and developers could be just beginning.

Antal International

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