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EU Expansion Eases Mobility on Continent

But even with the easing of labor policies overseas, Europeans are less likely to move for work than Americans are.

February 16, 2006
Related Topics: Relocation Management, HR & Business Administration
Thanks to the continuing economic integration of the European Union, the Polish plumber who became an icon of last spring’s EU constitutional referendum in France does not need a visa or work permit to ply his trade in London, Dublin or Stockholm. Sometime over the next several years, he may be able to work in any of the 25 member countries.

    "There’s been a marked change in employee mobility in Europe," says Peter Blake, a principal at Mercer Human Resource Consulting. "It’s become much easier for EU multinationals to ask people to move around within Europe."

    In fact, relocations on the continent can resemble transfers within the United States. Moving an employee from Belgium to the Netherlands is similar to relocating someone from Philadelphia to Houston.

    "They are becoming much more intramobile (in Europe), to the point that it’s more like a domestic transfer than an international transfer," says Christopher Tice, manager of DuPont’s global expatriate operations and relocation services.

    Tice doesn’t equate an employee moving from Brussels to Amsterdam with one who is going from Brussels to Beijing. "You can’t say both of those are international assignments and we’re going to treat them exactly the same," he says.

    As the EU expands, people in the new member states are taking advantage of the increasingly liberated European labor market. "Central and Eastern Europe are seeing a lot of self-generated mobility to seek employment," says Ian Payne, managing director for Europe and Asia Pacific for Cendant Mobility.

    Even though Europeans can move easily from country to country to work, each EU member continues to enforce its own eligibility rules for social benefits. People are beginning to move around to find jobs, but there has not been a surge of population from poorer EU states to richer ones to take advantage of welfare programs.

    "It has not been the watershed cataclysm people predicted before enlargement," Payne says.

    As companies begin to view the EU as one large economy, the idea of expatriate life is changing. The traditional model--leaving your home country to work in a foreign location and then return--is being replaced by one-way transfers in which employees are sent to a new country to stay.

"They are becoming much more intramobile (in Europe), to the point that it’s more like a domestic transfer than an international transfer."
--Christopher Tice, DuPont

    "That volume of traffic has gone up enormously with integration and expanded trade (in Europe)," Payne says. "Companies are looking at the EU as one trading entity."

    The culture of moving begins early for many Europeans. For instance, some travel to neighboring countries in their childhood to learn English. That sets them apart from Americans.

    "There’s more of an expectation among European multinationals that you will move," Blake says. "There’s less an expectation of moving in the U.S."

    But in practice, Americans tend to move more often for their jobs than Northern Europeans, according to Payne. "Statistically, we are less mobile than our American cou­sins," he says.

    Culture may account for part of the difference. Europeans put more of a priority on staying close to their families. In the United States, a move that advances a career may take precedence over familial proximity.

    "The U.S. is very much a live-to-work culture," Payne says. "Gainful employment is a critical part of life. The willingness to be mobile has always been greater in the USA than in Europe."

    The differences may be just in degree. Global economic competition is forcing Europeans and Americans to embrace mobility, especially younger employees who see an international assignment as a key step in their careers. They’re increasingly less likely to work long term for a company, so they seek assignments that will strengthen their résumés.

    "We’re seeing young people looking at companies as temporary vehicles for skill development and career experience," Payne says.

    But before employees of any age can roam around Europe, companies must continue to comply with the differing work laws of EU countries. "The harmonization of income and social taxes and pensions has not taken place," Payne says. "It is a major obstacle to people moving around with ease."

Workforce Management, February 13, 2006, p. 38 -- Subscribe Now!

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