This article by Dr. Cheryl Matherly originally appeared in the book, Impact of Education Abroad on Career Development, published by the American Institute of Foreign Study. The complete book can be downloaded as a PDF from their website. For more information about preparing your resume or practicing for interviews, as referenced in this article, visit the Career Planning and Placement Center.
The key to understanding how employers view a student’s international experience—and in turn, how best to market that experience when job searching—is understanding what the term “global workplace” really means. Despite their romantic visions of jetting from country to country, the fact is that most new graduates will join the ranks of the so-called “domestic internationals,” employees whose international careers are based in their home countries. In a global workplace, most employees will continue to live and work at home, but will use technology to customize products and services for clients worldwide, communicate with suppliers, and collaborate on projects with overseas offices. New graduates will be immersed in many foreign cultures as part of their jobs— without ever setting foot overseas.
More than a decade ago, the Rand Corporation and the National Association of Colleges and Employers (then the College Placement Council) conducted one of the first studies to consider the implications of the global economy for new college graduates. According to the report, hiring managers sought out new graduates, who demonstrated “domain knowledge” or expertise in a specific field; who possessed interpersonal skills, including problem solving, decision-making, and communications skills; and previous work experience. Of course, these are the same attributes companies have required of their employees since the dawn of the human resources department. The managers, however, cited a critical new requirement: cross-cultural competency, defined as an ability to work in a multicultural environment that may or may not be located in the U.S. Interestingly, hiring managers did not place value on the particular international experience of the student, as much as they valued the skills that the student had developed in order to adapt to a new culture. In other words, employers were interested in the personal as well as professional skills that a student employed to successfully adapt to living, studying or working in France, because they could be applied, for example, to working with a multinational team based in Latin America.
So why, in a global economy, then, do many campus recruiters rank studying abroad so low in the list of experiences that they seek among new graduates?
Very few companies specifically set out to hire students with international study, work, or volunteer experience, for example, although it seems they should be the group best prepared for the demands of a multinational and multiethnic work force. The attitudes of hiring managers regarding foreign language skills, expressed in the 2003 Rand Corporation study, “What Makes a Successful Career Professional in an International Organization,” helps explain this seeming contradiction. The Rand researchers asked hiring managers to rank nineteen different qualifications in terms of their importance for their organization. The managers ranked language fluency last (nineteenth), while cross-cultural competence, defined as an ability to work well in different cultures and with people of different origins, placed fifth. Related competencies such as “interpersonal and relationship skills” and “ambiguity tolerance and adaptability” ranked second and third, respectively. This study did not conclude that foreign language skills were not important—fluency in a foreign language was considered a predictor of cross-cultural competency. Rather, the respondents made clear that a foreign language acquired in an academic setting, which usually emphasizes literary rather than applied uses of a language, was by itself not sufficient to produce cross-cultural competency. Further, the managers leveled criticisms at study abroad programs in which students lived with other Americans, took courses from U.S. professors and socialized mostly among themselves. What the managers in this study did value, were programs in which students had substantial and meaningful “real world experience” with another culture.
The implication for the college job seeker is clear. It is simply not enough to seek an international experience—the experience itself has little value for an employer. The savvy job seeker must be able to speak about this experience in terms of the transferable skills that he or she developed while abroad and how they can be applied to the workplace. For many students, this can be an enormous challenge. The 2003 Rand report concluded that, to effectively exercise leadership in the global workplace, employees must demonstrate the following: a “multidimensional and well-integrated” repertoire of skills that includes substantial professional or technical knowledge related to the organization’s core business; managerial ability that includes effective interpersonal and teamwork skills; a strategic understanding of their organization and industry in a global context; and, once again, cross-cultural experience.
Advisors can help prepare students to articulate how their time spent studying, working, or volunteering abroad prepared them with these skills by asking them to identify specific examples that they might use to illustrate to an employer what they learned. The following is a check list of specific competencies that may be developed by international experiences, and is a good starting place for students to identify their transferable skills. Advisors can ask students to identify an experience that would demonstrate that they can:
- Creatively solve problems by applying familiar concepts to unfamiliar situations
- Contribute to an ethnically diverse team
- Be self-confident, yet able to listen and learn from people whose value systems are different
- Take personal risks and act independently
- Be flexible and adaptable to rapidly changing situations
- Have a basic command of the local language, and be able use it in practical situations or
- Imagine, forecast, analyze or address business situations from a different cultural frame of reference.
This simple exercise is a critical first step for helping students to make their international experience relevant to employers.
The students’ next task is to determine how to present their transferable skills via the traditional job search marketing tools: the resume and the job interview. A well-designed resume is not simply a laundry list of experiences but a thoughtfully designed document that markets a student’s best experiences. The nature of the international experience will determine how a student presents it on his or her resume. Most students will include time spent studying abroad in the “Education” block on their resume, listing it just after their primary institution. An international internship or job will be included in the “Work Experience” block. Yet students, especially those who held jobs that are not related to their academic major, should be encouraged to think in terms of transferable skills, rather than simply listing their job duties. An adviser, for example, can ask a student, “What is it about your experience as a bartender in London that a future
employer will find valuable?” This question can help students shift from writing about serving beer to describing their role in negotiating cultural differences, training new employees, and trouble shooting customer complaints. Students who are pursuing an international career may also choose to create a
separate block on their resume called “International Experience,” and include within it all relevant information about their work abroad, study abroad and foreign language experiences.
- To effectively present an international experience on his or her resume, students should ask themselves the following questions:
- What am I trying to communicate to a potential employer about my international experience? About its relationship to my academic major?
- What skills did I learn abroad? What cross-cultural competencies did I develop?
- How much detail do I need to provide on my resume to ensure that this experience has meaning to a potential employer?
- Where should I include this experience on my resume so that it will have the most impact and support what I am trying to communicate?
The second place that students will present their international experience to employers is during the job interview. Most college recruiters use behavioral interview questions, which assume that how a student handled a situation in the past predicts how he or she will handle a similar situation in the future. For example, a very common behavioral interview question is, “Tell me about your most challenging situation while in college and how you handled it.” Employers using behavior interview questions attempt to get students to tell a story about themselves and relate it to the job for which they are applying. The behavioral interview presents a very good venue in which a student can make his or her international experience relevant for the employer. A student who is able to discuss what he or she learned from a particular challenge associated with studying or working abroad will, in this example, demonstrate to the employer how the experience helped develop his or her problem solving skills.
Most career centers have materials that include typical job interview questions, and it is a useful exercise for students to prepare answers using experiences from their time abroad as examples. As a starting place, students who are preparing for interviews should ask themselves the following questions:
- What key competencies is the employer seeking for this position?
- Aside from technical skills, what are the other interpersonal qualities the company desires? An ability to work in teams? Flexibility? Creative problem solving?
- What are the two or three best stories from my time abroad that will illustrate that I have these qualities? Can I tell this story in a compelling manner? How will I relate this experience to the job for which I am applying?