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Preparing for An International Career

As an international careers adviser, I receive questions daily from people of varied backgrounds who hope to try their luck in the global marketplace. The short answer is that there is, literally, a world of opportunities for job seekers who are serious about pursuing an international career. Whether you are an entry-level college graduate or mid-career professional, it is possible to find your niche by thoroughly researching the job market, identifying the relevant skills you already have, and acquiring the skills you may lack.

Many job seekers mistakenly believe that they can't begin an international career until their feet are on foreign soil. They overlook their own backyard for resources and training opportunities. Consider the skills most sought after by global employers and the strategies for acquiring them before you leave home.

The Most Sought-After Skills
What do international employers really look for in employees and what skills will be needed by professionals to perform successfully in the global marketplace?

A recent study commissioned by the College Placement Council Foundation surveyed 32 international employers and colleges to determine what international employers seek in prospective employees. They identified the following areas of required knowledge and skills:

Domain knowledge, or knowledge in one's academic discipline. Colleges in the U.S. are presently preparing their graduates well in domain knowledge, although employers expressed concern that increasingly greater demands and higher standards may soon result in inadequately prepared graduates.

The three most important skills were cognitive skills, social skills, and "personal traits." Problem-solving ability, decision making, and knowing how to learn are highly prized generic skills. Social skills were described as the ability to work effectively in group settings, particularly with diverse populations. Personal traits mentioned frequently included flexibility, adaptability, and the capacity to be innovative. Employers often mentioned that colleges do not adequately address this type of skill development.

Cross-cultural competence is a critical human resource. Students must make a concerted effort to acquire the knowledge, skills, and traits gained through cross-cultural interaction because we are more geographically and linguistically insulated than most other countries.

On-the-job training and prior work experience were considered as important as academic knowledge. Employers seek applicants who have been successful in applying their domain knowledge or academic studies and generic skills in the workplace. They say that colleges do not place sufficient emphasis on work experience.

Acquiring the Skills
Get Experience. An internship or a stint as a volunteer can be invaluable to recent graduates or career changers. Locate organizations at the local level which have similar goals to those of larger international organizations. Service organizations address issues of health, housing, economic development, and employment-all of which are local as well as global concerns.

For example, one client wanted to find a position in development work in the Third World. I suggested that she research local human service organizations to find an internship that would provide her with opportunities to work with on-going projects. She found an internship as an interagency liaison with a relief organization that distributed medicine, food, and supplies to countries affected by war or natural disasters.

Many job seekers plan to teach English as a second language with little or no experience beforehand. Even a brief stint as a volunteer language assistant can provide insight into the challenges and rewards of the work. Testing a field in familiar settings can make for a smoother transition abroad.

Build Your Resume. Job seekers often do not have the time or the money to pursue a degree program, but in some instances a few courses may sufficiently augment the experience and education you already have. Consult a career counselor to help you assess your skills and identify approaches for strengthening your background. A counselor can also help you determine an optimum strategy for meeting your goals. Investigate extension and continuing education programs offered by local colleges and universities for courses in computer science, graphic design, and foreign languages.

Research the Job Market. Gather information by researching a variety of sources: trade publications, journals, professional associations, and electronic bulletin boards. The public library is a treasure trove of information. Many university libraries will issue a community user card for a nominal annual fee.

After you have a grasp of key issues and trends you may want to get the perspective of people who are active in the field. Use your alumni directory and professional associations as resources for networking and information interviewing. Do not set up an information interview and then ask your informant for a job. People generally resent the imposition. Instead, use the time to ask questions that are not covered in print material, including "If you were me, what would you do next?," "If you had to do it all over again, is there anything you would do differently?," and "What strategies did you use that were most successful?"

With a focused and well-organized approach, you can be on the path to developing skills for a global career.

Go Where the Action Is. Many U.S. cities are becoming global in population and perspective as people with diverse linguistic, national, and cultural backgrounds converge to live and work. Living in these locales can help you acquire cross-cultural competence and find work in fields such as business, cultural exchange, and health and human services with a focus on certain regions of the world. All major cities have world trade centers which support international commerce, as do some mid-sized and smaller cities.

If you're interested in the Asian Pacific Rim, for example, a job with a multinational organization in Seattle, Portland, or San Francisco may be a good starting point. Miami, Houston, and San Diego hold great potential for international trade between the U.S. and Latin America. New York and Los Angeles are centers of international business, diplomacy, and cultural affairs. Washington, DC provides a strong base for finding international employment, particularly in government and nonprofit organizations.