More U.S. workers being sent to international posts

Wow, Malcolm Dahn thought, this is really odd.

Dahn, 41, a partner in the accounting firm KPMG LLP, happened to peer inside a conference room around noon at one of his company's offices and what he saw blew his mind.

“There were literally 15 to 20 people in an audit room, taking a nap,” he said, still marveling. “They would take a nap in plain view – all these people, people in their cubicles.”

Dahn told this story last month in KPMG's Philadelphia office, where they jokingly call him “Mr. International,” but the memory comes from the three years he spent at KMPG's office in Seoul, South Korea, where naps at noon are part of accepted corporate culture.

Dahn is part of an expanding group of U.S. workers – employees with significant international experience and a broader perspective at a time when the world is growing smaller and an increasing number of companies operate in many nations.

“We're seeing, despite the economy in the United States, a lot of U.S. firms expanding overseas because, frankly, there are better economic opportunities for them abroad,” said Geoffrey Latta, executive vice president of Orc Worldwide, a New York consulting company specializing in international employment practices.

Not only are companies increasing the percentage of workers that they are sending abroad, but they are also requiring international experience as a prerequisite to leadership positions. And, they are also fielding more applications from recent graduates, fresh from semesters abroad, who put a high premium on global opportunities.

“Our clients are global, and we want to make sure that we have our professionals at least as global as our clients,” said Aidan Walsh, KPMG's partner in charge of international deployment.

Of its global workforce of about 120,000, KPMG now has about 2,500 on foreign assignment.

The company wants to increase that to 5,000 by 2010, aiming to have 25 percent to 30 percent of its professional staff with international experience at some point.

“It teaches our people a whole raft of new understandings,” said Walsh, in New York. “It helps them to realize that the U.S. doesn't have a lock on all the great ideas of the world.”

Building international bench strength is not cheap, said Penny Stoker, vice president of global human resources services for AstraZeneca P.L.C. in Wilmington, Del.

Typically, she said, it costs two to four times an employee's annual salary to cover expenses. Expenses can include a child's school tuition, tax equalization, cultural training and subsidized housing.

That is why, she said, the company focuses its international assignments on those scheduled for advancement. “Is that an investment that is worth the company making?” she asked. “We look at it very hard with our talent pool.”

As employees advance, she said, a simple posting to a foreign country is not enough.

They must also learn to work on international teams and then to manage across borders. For example, Stoker's direct reports are stationed in the United States, China, the United Kingdom and Sweden.

Impatient to advance, college students entering the job market want international assignments quickly, said Claudia Tattanelli, chief executive officer for Universum North America and Asia Pacific, a market-research firm specializing in employment trends among recent college graduates.

“These ex-pat opportunities are great,” said Tattanelli, based in Philadelphia. “They build very strong resumes. They can learn faster than staying at home.”