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Updated! the Michelle Obama factor: Make it easier for trailing spouses to get work permits

Startups should tap into the talent, experience and expertise of trailing partners and sidelined spouses. A streamlined visa/work permit programme would make it easier!

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23 20

Written by DeletedUser

Updated the concept to highlight the need for a more streamlined process for trailing spouses to get work permits in the EEA. By reaching out to people who have left their own careers to follow their partners, startups benefit from a mobile and experienced workforce. The systems set up to allow expat spouses to contribute from anywhere in the world also would also provide a way for stay-at-home parents and others who have taken a break from their careers to contribute.


Let's call it the Michelle Obama factor: When a person steps away from his or her own career to raise a family or follow a spouse's job, there's plenty of talent and expertise that can still be put to good use. Web entrepreneurs can benefit from this diverse and experienced talent base.

This could be done on a volunteer basis, but ideally, there would be way for people to be paid or to get equity. For this to happen, work permits and visas would have to be easier to get.  For instance, trailing spouses of resident permit holders in the UK can work, but those in Sweden and Germany generally cannot. 

Why not the introduction of a short-term working visa in the EEA that specifically allows trailing spouses to work for web startups?

A website could be set up where expat spouses, stay-at-home parents and others can register to contribute their time and knowledge in different areas of web startups, from ideation to testing to market research to financial analysis, etc. 

Contributors can log in and work on their own time, but there can also be online meetings for brainstorms and check-ins. A toolkit could be provided to e ncourage the set-up of satellite, in-person meet-ups in expat communities.

I'm thinking in particular of cities like Zurich, Munich and London where many multi-national companies and consultancies are based, and there's a sizable expat population. In Munich, for instance, there were so many expat spouses, we had a social group for "accidental hausfrauen" -- accidental housewives!  However, this set-up would also benefit people in more isolated locations, like those who have been deployed with military or diplomatic personnel.

... Updated 6 May to include scenarios ...


Types of individuals who could benefit from a temporary work permit and/or visa for working with startups:

  • Trailing spouses who have taken a break or left their own careers to follow their partner's job to another country

  • Partners who have taken a break from their careers to raise or care for families

  • Partners of military or diplomatic personnel who may get assigned to remote locations

  • Partners of academics who have moved for a fellowship, teaching assignment or other temporary situation (thank you, Paul Reader, for mentioning this group)

  • Additional non-partner category for consideration: Individuals with special skills who would like to work with EEA startups


  • Startups who need temporary or at least not full-time people with training, experience, and skills

  • Tech companies, including startups, who need skilled workers for maternity or paternity cover  (thank you, Christine, for this point)

  • Multi-nationals and academic institutions trying to convince workers to move overseas, who would have an attractive option to offer their trailing partners

  • "Native" job seekers, If the work permit/visa holder is permitted to be an entrepreneur themselves (thanks, Christine, again)

  • suggestions for others?

Highlighting differences between residency permits/visas and work permits

Categories of individuals' visa and work permit statuses:

Already in the country, with a residence permit/visa tied to the partner's residence permit/visa

  • Those who are by default allowed to work (in which case the website/network/community provides a way to connect them with companies looking for skilled workers)

  • Those who can only work if they get their own work permits sponsored by a company

  • Those who are not permitted to work currently

Currently out of the country, in the process of applying as a dependent for a residency permit tied to the spouse's residency/work permit

  • same three scenarios as above

Expanding the concept from trailing spouses to other individuals:

- People who are entitled to come to the UK or an EU country on working holidays, like Australians (in which case the website/network/community provides a way to connect them with companies looking for skilled workers)

- People who are entitled to come to the UK or an EU country on tourist visas, like Americans, but who have in-demand skills that web startups could use

- People who have ideas or skills to contribute to web startups. This scenario has to be fleshed out, but similar to the UK's investor or entrepreneur categories but with lower thresholds and shorter time limits.

How will your concept support web entrepreneurship?

Web entrepreneurs benefit from the input and contributions of educated, experienced and talented people from around the world. Startups generally don't have the resources to hire, for instance, a dedicated marketing or user testing person, and in many cases don't need a full-time person for the role. However, for quality work in areas like strategic marketing, graphic design, copyright legalities, etc. an intern isn't going to cut it. People who have stepped away from their careers, either to follow their spouses' jobs to another country or to raise a family, still want to contribute to and do meaningful work. By working with web startups through this online platform, they can keep their CVs current, keep up to date with technology and business developments, and explore new career directions.

What kinds of resources will be needed to get this concept off the ground and scale it?

Policy changes to make it easier for expat spouses to work. A short-term or long-term working visa in the EEA that specifically allows trailing spouses to work for web startups. A website where web startups can upload their projects and specific needs. Other people can then register to view, comment and sign up to work on projects and tasks. A toolkit for setting up in-person meetups and working sessions in the expat communities.

How could we get started?

Research current policies for trailing spouse work permits across the EEA zone. Explore how expats are or are not able to freelance now. How would payment be done? Directly by a startup or through a central agency? Let's prototype a website! Start a group on LinkedIn to get discussion started and gauge interest. Put a call out on expat sites.

Virtual Team:

Christine Becksted, Paul Reader

Evaluation results

13 evaluations so far

1. How well does this concept address a significant pain point felt by European web start-ups?

This is a major pain point for European start-ups - 30.8%

This is a "nice to have" but not a serious pain point - 53.8%

I really don't know - 15.4%

2. How novel do you think the concept is?

Never seen it before - very novel! - 53.8%

This is common in some places but not in many parts of Europe - 7.7%

This is not novel but a good iteration - 30.8%

There are already other solutions out there that address this problem - 7.7%

3. How easy is this concept to implement and maintain?

It could be implemented quickly and easily maintained - 15.4%

It could be implemented quickly but will require regular updates to ensure it is accurate and relevant - 7.7%

It is a big undertaking and would need a lot of support and cooperation from people and organisations to make it happen and to maintain it - 76.9%

4. What type of organisation is best placed to take this forward?

The European Commission should own this one - 23.1%

This belongs with member state governments (e.g., the UK, Belgium, etc) - 61.5%

This is best being owned by a private company - 0%

This feels like a non-profit - 7.7%

This is a start-up itself! - 7.7%

5. Overall, how do you feel about this concept?

It rocked my world! - 46.2%

I liked it but preferred others - 30.8%

It didn’t get me overly excited - 23.1%


Join the conversation:

Photo of Nathan Maton

It is awesome to hear about real obvious problems I had never considered. Great entry!

Photo of Patricio M. Hidalgo

Thoughtful and Practical at most; like it!

Photo of DeletedUser


Thank you, Patricio! Much appreciation for all who read and contributed to the challenge.

Photo of OpenIDEO

Congratulations on sharing a winning concept! The EC feels it is important to put in place suitable work permit options to encourage the right amount of mobility of the workforce across Europe, and likes the debate you’ve started with the concept.

Photo of Paul Reader

Hi Charlene great to see this amongst the winning concepts. It a really worthwhile idea and could contribute more broadly to harmonious collaboration between countries

Photo of DeletedUser


Big thank you to all who contributed! And thank you to OpenIDEO for providing the platform for this discussion. Thrilled this is in the top concepts! Looking forward to continuing the discussion and seeing real steps taken to improve skilled workforce mobility in the EEA for the benefit of all.

Photo of DeletedUser


Charlene - here is a very dated report (2008) that give stats on trailing spouses....I'm sure there is more current data but it is a start:
As for my personal experience, I was employed by a Swedish company while I was living in Denmark.
Singapore it was quite easy to start a business - I think you have to put a minimum amount in the bank and not touch it.
China it was not possible for me to work.
Munich - I was finally able to get a "self-employment" tax number as a photographer but this took quite a bit of back and forth when we went to renew our residence visa's.
Dubai - it says quite clearly that I'm not allowed to work on my visa but my guess is that upon renewal I could probably get that changed as long as I had "my husbands permission" :-)

Photo of Amy Bonsall

Love the debate you guys are generating!

Christine, amazing set of experiences! Your remark on the dated link made me think of a couple of things:

1) There is definite value in simply having a resource that helps trailing spouses keep up to date on current law. I'm not a trailing spouse but an American in the UK, and over the course of 6 years here the laws regarding visas have changed untold numbers of times.

2) It is getting harder and harder (at least in the UK) to stay covered under a work visa. As the economy sours, countries are being ever more protective. Debating the benefits of those changes are the topic of a whole other challenge, however, what if there were a way to ease government fears about foreign workers through a type of swap? Trailing spouses must trail in all directions (e.g., Americans come to the UK, Brits go to Australia, Australians go to Switzerland, etc, etc). Crazy thought, but what about a marketplace for "swapped" working rights?

Photo of DeletedUser


Thanks, Amy!

1) agreed that an up-to-date database of current law and policies would be very helpful. A lot of what's online now is either out-of-date, advertising for visa expediting services, or hard to understand. In the UK, the UKBA site is actually quite thorough, but the information is still scattered across a number of pages, links and PDFs.

2) Also agreed that there would have to be limits to allay the "Oh my god, immigrants are the source of all our economic problems!" fears.

Controls could include:

- making the work visas temporary, subject to renewal, either for a year at a time, or tied to the duration of the partner's visa, in the case of trailing spouses

- not having the work visa time count toward settlement or citizenship, similar to how the UK is re-evaluating work permits' path to settlement

- having participating startups register for the programme, similar to the way companies participating in the UK's Tier 2 points-based system have to register -- but with much less red tape, pls!

- having EEA residents petition for or register in support of indivual applicants. I believe the UK citizenship process, for instance, requests endorsements from upstanding UK citizens.

- having payment processed through a central agency/agencies, perhaps one in each country/region, ensuring that tax is paid

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Additional controls:

- Making sure it's for skilled labour only, either through degree qualifications, work experience or skill category

- Limiting it to people who would already have the right to enter the country (like Australians in the UK, who can enter but want to stay longer to work with startups) or to be in a country (trailing partner on spouse's work permit but currrently not permitted to work themselves)

Photo of DeletedUser


Additional anecdotal scenario: a biologist from New Zealand studying in the UK who would love to work for startups but feels stressed by the limited time he's allowed to stay after graduation. Clearly skilled labour, with much to contribute. His take: "With regards to a trailing spouse visa, in an ideal world I'd have a simple policy that gives dependents a full right to work (within the same visa timeline as the original applicant)."

Photo of Amy Bonsall

Great updates, Charlene! I like the ways to help the governments feel more in control and the story that allows them to tell their constituencies.

Photo of DeletedUser


Excellent idea Charlene.
I have often wondered if there would be a way to create worldwide talent pool that companies could tap into on a temporary basis when their employees are taking the very generous maternity or paternity leaves in countries like Germany and Denmark - I have no idea if there would be a way to wriggle around most visa laws if the position where approached as "temporary".
Anyway, I will keep my eye on this comments section. Good stuff!

Photo of DeletedUser


Sorry - I realize I just jumped to a tangent but the thought was that the expat talent pool for web start-ups might also be a place where companies could look for qualified talent on a temporary's late and sometimes I forget to connect the dots! ;-)

Photo of DeletedUser


Hello, Christine! I got what you were saying. :) It's an excellent point. Here in London I frequently see job postings for "maternity cover" postions lasting 6mo to a year. I wonder how easy it is for businesses to find qualified temporary people. Do you know what they case is like in Germany? Are companies able to find the people they need?

It's an interesting question -- does the concept need to be expanded to include other types of workers, not just people who have followed their partners' work permits, but other people who can provide needed skills but on a temporary basis?

Would you care to share your experiences with the work situation for trailing partners in some of the places you've lived?

Photo of Paul Reader

Just a quick observation - I guess matching skills to positions is one issue since I think short-term work permits/visas are probably available - at least they are here in Australia (with up to 5 years considered as temporary). The issue here is certainly political as it raises two questions:
1 - will employing temporary imported talent exclude deserving resident employees; and
2 - in a market economy with excess labour (as is true of many economies) will this lead to exploitation of the cheapest importable labour.

In the temporary/casual labour force here in Australia this is certainly happening as foreign students seek to find even unskilled jobs at minimum rates to 'earn' potential residency status.

On the other hand it often seems possible for trailing spouses of those gaining short-term academic appointments to find suitable positions.

Photo of DeletedUser


Paul - these are definitely fair points but I think that they don't entirely fit the trailing spouse scenario because the spouse won't be "imported" as they are already in residence with a resident visa tied to the other spouse and they are paying taxes but are just not given the opportunity to work solely because they might snatch a job away from "a more deserving resident". This is where clarification, policy change and a special temporary work visa classification could really benefit the resident country as well as the trailing spouse because as it stands now most countries will not even allow entrepreneurial efforts (except Singapore that I know of) which of course could actually create jobs...but that is a different topic.

Charlene, I guess my next question to you would be why can't this happen now? It sounds like what you are suggesting is a collaboration without compensation so there are no Work Visa laws that would be broken right? Or are you hoping to allow compensation with changes to the work visa laws?

Photo of DeletedUser


Hello Paul! Thanks for your comment. The availability of short-term work permits/visas varies widely depending on country. I believe that with Australia, there are more options for working holidays, especially Australia-UK.

Primary challenges will definitely include policy change and overcoming political objections (and obfuscation). To be clear, I'm speaking of skilled labour and temporary work permits/visas.

I've added a scenarios section to the end of the concept text (above) that outlines various potential visa and work permit situations.

"This is where clarification, policy change and a special temporary work visa classification could really benefit the resident country as well as the trailing spouse because as it stands now most countries will not even allow entrepreneurial efforts (except Singapore that I know of) which of course could actually create jobs..."

Really excellent point, Christine! The current set-up is actually preventing trailing spouses from contributing to the countries they're in, with additional taxes, skills, or creation of jobs,

Photo of DeletedUser


Separate comment to address "why can't this happen now?"

I'm suggesting both:

- a better network / toolkit / online resource for collaboration that works within current work visa set-ups, so startups and expat workers can find each other easier. Allowing for volunteer and internship opportunities helps people keep their skills fresh or to explore changing careers. This also benefits retirees, recent grads, etc.

- actual policy change, including creation of work visa categories and the practical support to make this happen. If skilled workers are doing real work, they should be getting paid for real. Why shouldn't trailing partners be allowed to contribute in a meaningful way: to their new/temporary countries, to their household incomes, to web entrepreneurships, to the world?

Photo of OpenIDEO

Hi Charlene, interesting post! Any chance you could find an image to go along with it? Images help grab attention and tell a story with higher impact. You should be able to use the 'Update entry' button on the right of your post and follow the instructions to add images from there. We know occasionally people have issues uploading images so let us know by hitting the Support tab on the left hand side of most pages of our site if you face any problems. Looking forward to seeing more of your inspiring ideas on OpenIDEO.

Photo of DeletedUser


Thanks! Uploaded an image -- was posting on an iPad earlier and couldn't upload an image through Safari on iPad. Will add more images if I can find good ones.

Photo of Meena Kadri

Interesting idea to leverage cognitive surplus, Charlene.

Photo of Amy Bonsall

Great idea, Charlene. Critical point about policy changes for trailing spouses as well.