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'Global Nomads' Finding There's No Place Like Home for Benefits

The upturn in so-called 'global nomads'—those who move from country to country on long-term assignments—has focused more attention on their medical and retirement benefits.

March 1, 2013
Related Topics: Benefit Design and Communication, Top Stories - Frontpage, Retirement/Pensions, Health and Wellness, Health Care Benefits, Retirement Planning, Strategic Planning, Benefits
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Just as the number of assignments abroad is on the rise, more people are moving overseas for work—and are staying there.

A survey by Mercer found that the percentage of "global nomads"—those who move from country to country on long-term assignments—jumped from 6 percent to 10 percent of the expatriate population between the consultancy's 2008-09 and 2011-12 Benefits Survey for Expatriates and Internationally Mobile Employees.

Nearly 300 multinational firms took part in the most recent survey, and together they have 119,000 expats. In 2008-09, almost 250 companies were surveyed, which had 94,000 expats.

The term "global nomad" applies to those in a variety of situations, such as a U.S.-based company that sends an American employee to a number of countries around the world; an American company that hires a European worker and sends that employee to work in the Middle East; or an American company that hires a Latin American person and sends that worker to various Latin American countries.

The upturn in global nomads has focused more attention on their medical and retirement benefits.

Almost all companies surveyed provide health insurance for all their expat employees. Many companies turn to international medical plans, so coverage is relatively comparable regardless of where an employee is based. "It's the most popular approach taken by companies, especially with global nomads," says Roger Herod, a principal in Mercer's global mobility consulting business.

The humanitarian organization World Vision International has a self-insured plan and makes use of Cigna International to help with the health insurance claims process, says Ginny Pedevill, senior human resources manager.

World Vision has about 45,000 employees based in about 100 countries, and about 700 are on long-term international assignments.

With its self-insured health plan, World Vision's coverage is consistent from country to country, Pedevill says. "Less-developed areas that may not have adequate health systems may require us to medically evacuate the employee to the closest health center that would be able to provide quality care."

Mercer's survey found about two-thirds of global nomads and those on long-term international assignments remain in their home country's retirement plans.

But in some cases that's not possible because the person's home country doesn't have a suitable pension plan, Herod says, such as an Eastern European who is sent on various assignments abroad for a Western company.

It's particularly difficult for global nomads, Herod says, because they "pick up bits and pieces of pension rights from the different companies they've worked in. It doesn't amount to anything really significant."

Only 12 percent companies surveyed make use of international retirement plans. "It's not as common as it probably should be," he says. "This is like the hidden iceberg. We have significant numbers of multinational corporations that have large numbers of global nomads and they have not yet addressed this pension problem with them."

Susan Ladika is a writer based in Tampa, Florida. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

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