Students Who Study Abroad Make More Well-Rounded Employees

HR should look to these applicants, who may be bilingual and likely possess soft skills that help them adapt in global environs

Aliah D. Wright By Aliah D. Wright October 5, 2017
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Students who study in other countries gain work-related skills that can help them be more successful in their careers, said panelists at the Generation Study Abroad IIE Summit 2017, held recently in Washington, D.C.

Living and going to school or college abroad develops soft skills that make students better equipped to deal with foreign colleagues and to be more flexible if they eventually work in another country.

"Employees have to know how to communicate across cultural divides and consider perspectives that are different than their own—[skills] you get when you study abroad," Lynn Shotwell, executive director of the Council for Global Immigration (CFGI) told conference attendees. The forum was sponsored by the New York-based Institute of International Education (IIE).

CFGI is an affiliate of the Society for Human Resource Management.

Shotwell moderated a panel discussion at the conference that featured Gina Tesla, vice president for corporate citizenship initiatives for IBM, and Reid Andres, director of communications and public affairs at telecommunications company Telefonica International USA. Both are based in New York.

Both speakers discussed their early experiences studying abroad and why HR professionals should consider hiring those with a global worldview—even though those candidates may be hard to find.

[SHRM members-only online discussion platform: 
 SHRM Connect]


"Unfortunately, fewer than 10 percent of American college students have a global experience, and less than half of Americans hold a valid passport," Shotwell told attendees. She added that "over the past five years, demand for bilingual workers in the U.S. has doubled—particularly [among] service industries such as banking and health care. Yet only about one-quarter of Americans can hold a conversation in a language other than English. … [You] see why corporate strategists and HR professionals have their work cut out for them to find and develop the talent they need to be successful."

Wanted: Globally Influenced Soft Skills

According to a new IIE report, Gaining an Employment Edge: The Impact of Study Abroad on 21st Century Skills & Career Prospects, studying abroad has "an overall positive impact on the development of a wide range of 21st century job skills."

Those include "curiosity, flexibility, adaptability, confidence, self-awareness, interpersonal skills, communication, problem solving, language, tolerance for ambiguity, and course or major-related knowledge. Teamwork, leadership, and work ethic were also reportedly developed or improved," the report stated.

"That ability to be flexible and adaptable is core to an experience of studying abroad," Tesla said. "It's about that mindset, analytical skills and really being able to approach a new and challenging situation to leverage insights," all of which are especially helpful for those who work with teams all over the globe, she added.

And as technology continues to improve and expand the ways in which employees communicate with each other, it's important for HR to consider making sure that employees have the soft skills necessary to communicate and empathize with people in other cultures.

"IT has gone through a tremendous transformation," Andres said. "The world is global and digital, and there are skillsets that will require [employees to] get out of their comfort zones, think on their feet and [who] have problem-solving capabilities—that will become more important every day."

For example, Tesla added, what IBM seeks are employees who have had "authentic service-based opportunities" while they studied abroad and who now possess "analytical and critical reasoning—all these things will give me a hint to whether the person will adapt to a fast-paced environment," she said.

"We're also looking for their sense of self-awareness and their ability to listen."

 

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