Skills Gap or Disconnect? Translating Study Abroad Experiences to Workplace Skills

March 29, 2013

By Mallory Meiser

Less than a year ago when I was fresh out of college starting my job search, I was disheartened by the lack of emphasis employers put on my study abroad experience. More often than not, my five months in Europe were discounted as a holiday or “social experiment” as opposed an educational endeavor, the experience overlooked in favor of GPA and the rigor of my courses. In a culture where “study abroad” evokes visions of EuroTrip, how do we help employers realize that students with international experience have the intercultural skills they are looking for in the modern, globalized workplace?

A new report published by the British Council, Booz Allen Hamilton, and Ipsos Public Affairs attempts to better understand how intercultural skills are considered, assessed, and developed. The research confirms that intercultural skills are pertinent to today’s global workplace, but perhaps more interesting is how the data exposes the value and meaning each country attaches to those skills.

At a breakfast briefing in Washington, DC, last week, researchers discussed how the United States has one of the least complex understandings of intercultural skills. On average, U.S. companies were able to name two indicators of intercultural skills, the top being the ability to communicate in other languages. Companies in Jordan, the UAE, and India, countries researchers deemed to have a more comprehensive and robust of idea of intercultural skills, offered consistently more indicators including the ability to demonstrate respect for others, accept different cultural viewpoints, and understand cultural contexts.

The drastic difference in how these countries define and identify intercultural skills is reflected in the value they attach to them. In the United States, only one- fifth of companies identified the benefits of intercultural skills to be the ability to work with diverse teams, with a small percentage saying that the skills were useful to bring on new clients and boost the reputation of the company. The biggest risk determined by companies was miscommunication between teams and, most alarming, one-fifth of companies found that there is no disadvantage at all to not having intercultural skills.

In contrast, for Jordan, the large majority of companies saw intercultural skills as beneficial not only for reputation, but also for bringing in new clients, building trust and relationships with clients, and keeping teams running efficiently. Moreover, the risks associated with not having intercultural skills were perceived as much more severe with client loss and damage to brand reputation being the biggest concerns.

Another upsetting statistic revealed in the report was that a meager 8 percent of U.S. companies believe that study abroad should be encouraged in order to improve intercultural skills. This response draws a parallel to the results of another British Council survey, Broadening Horizons, which found that less than one-fifth of U.S. students viewed study abroad experience as a means to improve employment prospects. What can be deduced from these two reports is that students as well as employers are not identifying and translating the skills acquired during study abroad to competencies valued in the workplace.

So what does this mean?

It means two things:

  • Employers in the United States need to broaden their understanding of intercultural communication beyond the easily identifiable skills such as speaking a second language.
  • International educators need to provide the structure and tools necessary to ensure that intercultural skills are being developed in a way that students and employers translate them to the workplace.

The challenge for advocates and professionals in the field of international education is to bridge the gap between what employers are looking for and what students with study abroad experience can offer; to emphasize the fact that the intercultural skills acquired from being immersed in a different culture go above and beyond those exhibited in EuroTrip and are not only relevant, but essential, to a global workplace.

For tips on how to translate study abroad experience for the job search join us for our upcoming webinar titled "Helping Students Translate 'Study Abroad' for the Job Search"


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