- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2001

Attitude is everything to the Smiths. Last August, the family Kathryn and Stephen Smith and their children Alex, 10, and Adrie, 8 packed everything they own. They moved nearly 2,400 miles from Arlington to Mexico City after Mr. Smith accepted a foreign assignment as a management consultant.
"Steph had been wanting to go overseas somewhere for a long time," Ms. Smith says. "He is the son of a foreign-service officer and is incredibly well-traveled. I, on the other hand, had been to Canada."
Ms. Smith says she knew the move would be a culture shock and it was but now she feels happy and settled.
"I am actually amazed at how easy it was, compared to what I thought it would be.
"From what I've seen of Americans here who are or aren't successfully acclimated, attitude is the No. 1 thing," she says. "You need to want to be here. For us, it's the language, the culture and the experience of living somewhere other than our own country."
Relocation is a fact of life for many employees in both the public and the private sectors. Each year, thousands of Americans pull up their roots and cross land, sea and air to replant themselves in foreign soil.
Overseas assignments even when welcome disrupt lives, interrupting children's educational and social webs, suspending friendships and, in the case of the accompanying spouse, sacrificing plum jobs or cutting short satisfying careers. Although most employers now go to great lengths to ensure successful transitions, families ultimately are responsible for their own happiness.

An investment for everyone

Moving a family overseas is a pricey proposition. Recent research shows that the average costs to relocate a current, homeowning employee is $51,353, according to the Employee Relocation Council, a professional organization concerned with domestic and international employee transfer.
A real count of the number of Americans working overseas is hard to come by. The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not compile such numbers. The State Department keeps a running tally of every man, woman and child registered with foreign embassies for purposes of crisis management and says there are millions, although all are not registered.
"Because companies realize this is so costly, they have done quite a bit of research to learn what makes relocations successful," says Anita Komlos, national director for business development for Berlitz Cross-Cultural International Inc., based in Princeton, N.J. Berlitz is one in a burgeoning industry of companies that provide relocation-orientation services to corporate clients worldwide. Its menu selection includes global business training as well as a children's program called "Relocate & Communicate for Kids."
"The unsuccessful rate of relocation is 12 percent," says Ms. Komlos, "and the No. 1 reason is that the family was not able to adjust successfully to a new culture."
As a managing editor at Craighead Inc., a company that provides subscription-based international relocation information, Elizabeth Weiss has examined many of the issues relocating families face.
"It's a complex situation, this relocation," she says. "And the more members of the family, the more complicated it is."
Ms. Weiss identifies a trend in the international human-resources industry toward employee self-help.
"The HR manager will leave a number of tools with the employee and allow the employee to build his own toolbox" for relocation, she says. "A person might choose language training, for example, or to revisit the medical-insurance package and enhance it, retain a visa consultant for the spouse if she is looking into employment, might want to be connected with an in-country relocation professional who can give you post-arrival information."
Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Mr. Smith's employer, sends its management and technical consultants on assignments to places ranging from Saudi Arabia to Thailand, Great Britain to France, Brazil to Canada.
Barbara Lawson, manager of compensation, benefits and programs for Booz-Allen's worldwide technology business, says a multitude of elements are considered in an overseas assignment.
"That whole assimilation process really starts when someone starts thinking about relocating," she says. "But I think there is an understanding that when they go to a foreign country there is a significant difference in the lifestyle they will have there."

Gaining or losing?

Even though some families may welcome an overseas assignment as a cultural bonanza, nothing comes without a price tag.
"The majority of our people look at going overseas as an adventure, as long as they have a comfort level that they're not going to lose anything with the assignment," Ms. Lawson says. She says Booz-Allen determines cost of living country by country to ensure free trade is fair trade.
"We use an international compensation consulting firm, which looks at the cost of living in a particular country and the cost of living in terms of housing relative to the employee's home base," Ms. Lawson says. "Then we formulate a plan based upon the cost of the new location. The plan will consist of cost-of-living differential and housing allowance if the cost is higher and housing isn't provided as part of the contract."

Jobs for the 'trailing spouse'

Overseas postings are the raison d'etre for the State Department. The department's Family Liaison Office (FLO) provides relocation services and support to more than 50 government agencies, ranging from the Foreign Commercial Service to the Internal Revenue Service to the Defense Intelligence Agency.
"We look at a number of quality-of-life issues," FLO Director Faye Barnes says. One of those a big one is spousal employment overseas.
"Because we have very intelligent officers, they marry very intelligent spouses who usually have a career and want to continue it," Ms. Barnes says.
Gong Li, husband Michael Cavanaugh and sons Andrew, 5, and James, 2, will be moving to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, this summer from Arlington in a State Department transfer, where Mr. Cavanaugh works as an economic officer. Ms. Gong, a translator and researcher on contract to Radio Free Asia, says this will be the couple's third overseas assignment with the State Department.
Next to her older son's schooling, overseas employment is a top issue for her, she says.
"In our last two posts, I worked," she says, "and it's always a challenge to me to know if I'll be able to work or not. For us, that means either in the local economy or in the embassy or consulate. We'll try to get some stats on how many people are working outside the embassy, what kinds of jobs are held, and other things."
Several issues are paramount to trailing spouses looking to find work overseas, says Ms. Weiss of Craighead. For example: "Is my current employer represented in the country I'm going to, and if so, can I swing something? What are the restrictions from a visa standpoint?"
She says Americans should contact the embassy or consulate of the country to which they wish to relocate before they leave U.S. soil to learn about visa restrictions. Many embassies offer Web sites containing this information and including application documents that can be downloaded.

Finding schools

In late 1996, Glen Krueger, a systems engineer with Lockheed Martin Corp., accepted a three-year assignment in the north of England. Mr. Krueger and his wife, Michele, settled into the Yorkshire countryside with their four children, then ages 4, 6, 8 and 10.
"We could have enrolled them in school at the nearby military base," says Mr. Krueger, relaxing into a fluffy love seat in a 100-year-old townhouse in the English village of Harrogate, where he recently returned for a brief business stint. Instead, the Kruegers chose to send all four children to a local private school a British private school.
"I researched the schools before we went," Ms. Krueger says. "I got a pretty good feel for them."
Mr. Krueger says he and his wife were pleased with the caliber of education the children received. Other parents are not so lucky.
"In a lot of our posts in Eastern Europe, there is not what is deemed an adequate school," Ms. Barnes says. "Most of the developing countries have OK schools at the primary level, but at the high-school level there is often nothing. The other real big issue in education is when you have a child with special needs. In the United States, we provide special-needs program. But overseas, all the schools are private and do not have to provide them."
Ms. Gong advises parents to start looking into the school situation early on in the decision-making process.
"If it's not the most important issue, it's one of the most important," she says.

Housing, health and coming home

"When you get an assignment, here is what you should do first," Ms. Weiss says. "Figure out what school your children are going to go to, because the school will influence where you live."
Many companies will provide for what commonly is called a "look-see" visit, a quick trip to the destination city to lay some tracks before making the big move. During that trip, says Ms. Weiss, a couple might visit schools, look at real estate and check boarding facilities for pets.
"You want to be very structured about what you cram into the look-see visit," Ms. Weiss says. "There is the temptation to make it a tourist trip."
Along with finding a new place to live, adds Ms. Weiss, "you also should think about what you're going to do with the home you're leaving. Rent to tenants? Leave it fully furnished? Sell it? When should it go on the market?"
With the assistance of a property-management company, the Smiths have rented their large North Arlington home to "four or five nice young men who have great jobs. They also like to have parties. We've heard this from our neighbors. Anyway, ultimately, the kinds of things they would mess up would be things we could fix."
Ms. Gong and her husband have attended seminars for property owners.
"They suggest you begin three months ahead of time to prepare your house to rent or sell," she says. "And there are management companies that specialize in helping people who are moving overseas temporarily."
Health care sometimes is a wild card for families overseas. The Smiths say, however, they have had excellent luck with doctors and dentists in Mexico City they choose, and their U.S. insurer picks up the tab.
Families may find themselves moving to a place in which the standard of medical care is not up to par or the necessary specialists are not available.
Ms. Weiss advises that if a family is moving to a place in which the standard of medical care is not up to par or the necessary specialists are unavailable the family might wish to negotiate an agreement under their general medical coverage that, if necessary, they would be transported out of the country to receive the services they need.
Many relocation consultants and former overseas families also agree that repatriation can be the most difficult element of an overseas assignment. They say some families don't feel ready to give up the adventure or have trouble integrating their newfound ways with their old life. Some also are shocked when their home doesn't match the glowing memories they've carried around for years.
Families also may find something highly annoying when they return home, writes Rosalind Kalb in her book, "Moving Your Family Overseas":
"Even in general conversation, your references to foreign ideas, cultures or peoples may be thought of as snobbish efforts … to show off. One family commented: 'We grew resentful of having to pretend that three or four years of our lives simply did not exist. Were you to tell about a vacation to Yellowstone National Park, everyone would listen. If the vacation happened to be in Spain, suddenly you become a name-dropper or a braggart.' "

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