School & District Management Opinion

Globally Competent Workforce: Why We Need One

By Heather Singmaster — June 19, 2013 5 min read
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I just returned from Texas where I presented at the Career Clusters Institute on the global nature of today’s workforce. While the goal of the session was to provide strategies for teaching career and technical education (CTE) in a global manner, our lively discussion revealed that many in the field still need to make the case to their local communities that we need a culturally competent workforce.

It is clear to many that we live in an interconnected world. This is especially true when it comes to our students, who are online and interacting with people around the world on a daily basis. Harnessing that interest and curiosity in the world to help our students succeed in the 21st century is more important than ever for many reasons:

National Security
National security concerns are global. This is obvious by looking at our military deployment around the world. The men and women collecting intelligence and engaged in nation building need to speak a second language and work within a completely different culture. A recent article from Defense News on this subject gives one small, yet illustrative, example: “an unidentified soldier of 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, following a tour in Afghanistan (said), ‘One patrol particularly stands out. We met two men who had never seen Americans before. While the patrol leader was questioning one of the gentlemen, I was chatting up his friend. The PL couldn’t get the one man to co-operate....I on the other hand was given a flower and the phone numbers of both men as well as a promise to participate in future shuras [tribal assemblies].’”

Changing Demographics
The changing demographics in our local communities mean that students from Alabama to Alaska will encounter different cultures on a daily basis. I’m sure everyone can think of an example of this in their own local community: foreign students or professors at a local educational institution, seasonal workers, or an influx of immigrants...there are many more examples. These new faces are consumers in local businesses, congregants in churches, patients at hospitals, and on and on. If you think your community is exempt from this, just wait: if current demographic trends continue, between 2000 and 2050, the number of Asians is expected to increase by 23.7 million persons, an increase of 220%, and the population of Hispanic or Latino origin is projected to rise from 12.6% to 30.2% in 2050 (approaching one in every three persons).

And of course there is the need to be competitive in the global business arena. To many, this is the most obvious reason, yet you might be surprised at how many people dismiss the business angle for a few different reasons, saying their children will work locally (see above to refute that argument!) or that English is the lingua franca of business and America is the top economy in the world, therefore, the rest of the world should learn English and learn about us. Or they say only the top businesspeople are jetting off around the world striking deals.

I will give them the fact that English is the lingua franca of business. Having myself traveled extensively, I can confidently say that you are quite likely to find people speaking English in most corners of the world. But just because they understand us, doesn’t mean we get them. How do you meet the needs of your customers if you don’t truly understand them?

It’s becoming quite clear that we need to understand consumers living around the world. According to the recent report American Companies and Global Supply Networks: Driving U.S. Economic Growth and Jobs by Connecting with the World, 95% of the world’s consumers live outside of the borders of the United States—meaning the majority of the world’s purchasing power lies outside our borders. “New customers abroad can expand an American company’s revenues, profitability, and employment, much more than can the U.S. market alone.” Even if a company is not directly selling in a global marketplace, they are probably supplying or working directly with another company that is. Global demand is growing much faster than it is here within our borders—companies need to connect internationally to expand.

And let’s turn to one additional misperception while we are at it: outsourcing only results in a loss of U.S. jobs. The American Companies and Global Supply Networks report addresses this as well, pointing out that expansion abroad “create(s) jobs in America connected to growth in global demand and to their global supply networks.” It continues: “Expansion abroad by U.S. companies tends to complement their U.S. operations, with more hiring and investment abroad often boosting hiring, investment, and R&D in their U.S. operations.” The ripple effect of supply chains means that expansion also creates jobs in other companies in the U.S. as well—especially small and medium sized enterprises.

People in different cultures tackle and solve problems in different ways and as our students in all fields will increasingly be working in global teams and with international consumers, they will need to be globally and culturally competent. Bobak Ferdowsi, the Mission Manager for the Mars Curiosity rover at the Joint Propulsion Laboratory, says knowing different cultures and languages “helps you see things in a really different way,” which is vitally important for the creative problem solving required for STEM work. I’m not saying this is rocket science, but if the rocket scientists need to be globally competent, what about the rest of us?

Learning a second language not only boosts creativity, but it helps with decision making. A recent study showed that, “Using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases.” It also forces people to be more deliberate and rely less on immediate emotional reactions. What employer doesn’t want that? In fact, a 2012 CareerBuilder survey showed that 33% of employers would go with the bilingual person if choosing between two equally qualified candidates.

Whether for national security, US citizenship, or the workforce, students need to be globally competent. Do these arguments resonant in your local community? Are there others that do?

Follow Heather Singmaster, Sr. Program Associate, Asia Society on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.