Opportunities skyrocketing as businesses search for growth overseas – but the expat model is a thing of the past, say practitioners

They organise the must-haves, like new schools and apartments, and the trivial, including rehousing pet tortoises. And they are the key to making sure globalised businesses can operate effectively.

A global mobility (GM) specialism is the fastest-growing area of opportunity for HR professionals, according to the experts, with soaring vacancies and a shortage of key skills making experienced GM operatives a prized commodity.

“More and more companies are internationalising,” says David Enser, head of mobility at adidas Group. “As their search for talent becomes more global, there is a need for skillsets that don’t exist in the everyday HR population.”

Jose Segade, who co-founded the RES Forum for GM professionals with Enser, agrees. “We live in a global economy. Even companies that have not had an international focus before now have had to change that mindset, and smart companies have realised that to do that they need an in-house resource to deal with the challenges.”

The 2015 Global Mobility Survey, which polled 1,300 people in 73 countries, reports that talent mobility is growing fastest in consulting and engineering firms, where overseas assignments this year were up 51 per cent. And it’s not just large organisations expanding internationally: the greatest growth was found in mid-size companies authorising 26-100 assignments per year. A total of 180,000 people emigrated from the UK for work-related reasons in 2014, according to ONS figures.

GM professionals’ practical responsibilities fall into four main areas, says Matthew Howse, head of employment at law firm Morgan Lewis. “There are immigration issues, employment law issues, employee benefit and remuneration issues, and tax issues,” he says. “If you forget any of them, you will end up with potential problems.” In-house GM specialists can help organisations steer clear of those problems by knowing where potential pitfalls lie and what assistance will be needed to get past them safely, he says. They can also save the cost of a specialist consultancy.

Sometimes, even frequent business travel can become a GM issue, adds Segade, who is also the global mobility manager at Prudential in London. “Companies need to be aware that there are certain triggers for tax, payroll, reporting and immigration just for spending a certain number of days in a jurisdiction,” he says.

Adidas’s people strategy includes many opportunities for overseas assignments, but it is a “different kind of mobility” than in the past. Gone are the expats of yesteryear, and the lavish relocation allowances and independent school fees their benefits packages entailed.

“We stopped referring to expats a long time ago,” says Enser. “It is a misleading term. What is an expat? A white, over-privileged Westerner.”

While the idea of going from A to B for three years is still there, “it is being replaced by different constructs,” says Enser. “A younger generation of people who do not have the same expectations of big fat packages are moving abroad on local contracts. We are also seeing more and more short-term assignments – international commuters who fly in and out for a few weeks a month.”

These approaches have multiple benefits, including flexibility – meaning international assignments and the career benefits they bring are open to a more diverse range of people – and a sense that Westerners moving to other countries are on an equal footing with their peers. Equally, international experiences will help organisations build truly global connections and cultures.

This “different kind of mobility” is also becoming more genuinely global as multinationals based in the Middle East and Asia expand their operations. “For instance, the shift in economic power in China and the emergence of Chinese brands means that companies there are now looking to send Chinese talent here,” says Enser.

The other factor for GM specialists is the fact that multinationals are fishing in a global talent pool, says Enser. This means GM professionals need a strong grasp of talent strategy as well as an understanding of the most interesting pools.

This focus on talent is just one of the reasons why it makes sense for GM to be part of HR, says Segade. Still, one of the biggest challenges can be ensuring that the whole organisation recognises those strategic issues. “There is a risk of being categorised as an expert in compliance or due diligence: part of the challenge is fostering the partnering mindset with the business. A commercial mindset does have to be part of your toolkit as a GM professional.”

Many GM specialists move into the field from a broader HR role, which provides a solid foundation, says Segade. “Having an HR background is a great advantage as mobility touches so many areas of HR, like talent, reward and employee relations,” he says. “An appreciation of other cultures and languages is also a plus, as are soft skills – such as empathy and communication – because you’ll be dealing with people at what can be a very stressful time.”

An international mindset is also vital; a background in languages or geopolitics can be good starting points, says Enser. “I am focused on the strategic development of an international cadre of employees who focus on reward, compliance, cross-cultural and candidate selection issues.” What HR professional wouldn’t want to do that?

The CIPD offers two global mobility courses: ‘fundamental’ (one day) and ‘advanced’ (two days). Learn more at bit.ly/GMcourses