According to the Institute of International Education, a non-profit research and training firm, just ten percent of American undergraduate students are typically able to enjoy an international study experience during the course of their degree program — a statistic they sorely needs to be improved upon. But why?
Students without international experience can often be left in a precarious position when competing for jobs in an increasingly global job market. A 2012 BBC article on the statistics of study abroad programs stated that studying abroad can provide a variety of opportunities including language acquisition and career development. Students who remain stationary during their entire college experience may find themselves seriously lacking when it comes to language capabilities and cross-cultural communication skills. Unfortunately, both of those skills are typically required to gain employment and excel in an international working environment. In other words, if you have never lived or studied abroad, your chance of getting a job overseas may be seriously diminished.
Nine in-demand skills for international workers
When it comes to landing a job overseas, experts such as Erik Bowitz of global resume-building firm Resume Builder suggest focusing on specific skills that tend to spell success for international workers. The good news is the top nine skills and qualities are not only in demand in the international job market, but can also translate well into positions at home:
Flexible workers are generally better suited to operate and even thrive in an adverse and foreign environment. This can be especially true in work cultures that are significantly different than the typical American working environment.
#2 Critical thinking
When it comes to working with people who come from a culture entirely different than your own, proper critical thinking skills are crucial. In fact, according to Bowitz, critical thinking skills are “always in demand and highly valued,” no matter where your career lands you on the globe.
Some skills for critical thinking, like logic and reasoning, tend to be associated with liberal arts and humanities programs, whose curricula typically integrate courses in classical and contemporary philosophy as well as communications. The social science field also integrates the same skills in associated fields like psychology, counseling and behavioral sciences.
According to Bowitz, working overseas usually means having to “overcome obstacles, such as language and culture that domestic workers don’t face.” That’s where perseverance comes in and why it is essential for employees who find themselves in an international environment. When things get tough, you can’t always just pack up and leave.
#4 Active listening
In order to communicate effectively overseas, active listening skills are a must. Knowing how to listen to others and gain and understanding of where they’re coming from is required when working with people with different backgrounds, histories and expectations. Being a good listener can be more challenging than it sounds, and academic fields like journalism, counseling and education emphasize the importance of active listening.
#5 Travel skills
Students or graduates who have never traveled abroad may be in for a rude awakening if they choose to begin an international career without any prior experience traveling outside of their home country. Before you go, experts suggest studying the cultural norms of the area you plan on moving to. That way, you can have a general idea of what to expect — and how you can better acclimate yourself ahead of time.
Building skills while studying abroad
Participating in a study abroad program while enrolled in a university can be a way of building travel skills. A 2013 infographic from the Institute of International Education (IIE) stated that in 2011-2012, only 9 percent of undergraduates from U.S. universities joined a study abroad program before graduation.
#6 Cross-cultural teamwork
“In many cases, working internationally will require close partnerships with locals,” Bowitz said. Knowing how to work in a team with people from different cultures can mean the difference between succeeding in your joint goals and failing because of your inability to connect or cope with cultural differences.
The field of international business covers some of the cross-cultural teamwork skill set in addition to general best practices for working abroad such as knowledge about local business laws and regulatory practices as well as general knowledge of world affairs.
#7 Cultural sensitivity
People from different cultures react differently to situations than you might be used to, and it’s not because they are strange or unusual, it’s because they come from a different background with a different set of social norms and expectations. Understanding the subtle differences between cultures, a soft skill that can be developed through courses in behavioral science, is crucial for international employees who truly want to understand their new co-workers and clients and work with them effectively.
#8 Language skills (and the ability to learn quickly)
“Language skills or the ability to learn fairly fast can’t hurt you,” said Victoria Hughes, a teacher who has taught and lived abroad in Poland, China and Turkey for the past four years. According to Hughes, language skills are crucial-even if you don’t necessarily need them for your international career.
“You’ll want to pick up a little bit so you can go shopping, eat out or do a myriad of small everyday things,” she pointed out. “And what’s the point of working abroad unless you absorb a bit of the culture?”
It’s easy to think of university-level language classes solely through the lens of full degree programs, but individual entry-level and mid-level courses can be beneficial to someone who plans to work in a country where that language is the de facto language for business communication.
Languages and dialects
While college language courses typically cover languages used for wider communication in one or more countries, a prospective expat worker should also take dialects into account.
The IIE’s 2010-2011 Open Doors Report found that the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain are the top three destinations for U.S. students studying abroad. ThirdYearAbroad.com identifies five primary Italian dialects. ALTA Language Services, a Spanish-language translation service states that Spain has three main dialects (with many more in South and Central America).
#9 Making your international experience work for you
Honing these career skills might be enough to land you the job of your dreams, but it’s important to remember that your journey doesn’t stop there. In fact, many workers who have found themselves overseas claim that it takes some time to adjust- even when they felt they had prepared adequately ahead of time.
And even after an individual becomes familiar with their new environment, they still aren’t out of the woods yet. “The biggest pitfall of working abroad is professional stagnation,” said Bowitz.
In order to allow an international experience to help your career and not hurt it, Bowitz suggested keeping an open mind and exploring all potential opportunities you might be presented with both abroad and back at home.
“Don’t settle,” Bowitz said. “Always look for new opportunities in other industries. Always learn and
always be thinking about your career 5-10 years out, not just 1-2.”
For more information on the skills you can start developing for working abroad, check out some of the course listings below or use the tool on the right to get matched to a school that works for you.
“Every Student Should Study Abroad,” The New York Times, May 12, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/10/17/should-more-americans-study-abroad/every-student-should-study-abroad
“Generation Study Abroad,” Inside Higher Ed, March 3, 2014, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/03/03/new-initiative-aims-double-number-americans-studying-abroad
“The statistics of studying abroad,” BBC Travel, September 26, 2012, http://www.bbc.com/travel/blog/20120926-the-statistics-of-studying-abroad
“A Quick Look at U.S. Students Studying Abroad,” Institute of International Education, 2013,
“U.S. Students Studying Overseas,” Institute of International Education, September 2, 2014,
“Languages and dialects in Italy,” ThirdYearAbroad.com, September 2, 2014,
“10 Spanish Dialects: How Spanish is Spoken Around the World,” ALTA Language Services, November 13, 2008,
Interview with Victoria Hughes, International Education Expert, conducted by Holly Johnson, WorldWideLearn.com, August 24, 2014
Interview with Erik Bowitz, International Senior Resume Consultant, Resume Builder, conducted by Holly Johnson, WorldWideLearn.com, August 24, 2014