Making hidden competences visible

Making hidden competences visible

Study abroad can be marketed as a means for students to gain valuable skills that they may not otherwise acquire. These skills raise their profile among potential future employers, just as study abroad opportunities make a university more appealing in the eyes of the student market. But what exactly are the competences that employers identify as valuable, and do students know how to articulate what they have learnt in specific terms? 

International exchange and traineeship programmes are at the heart of strategies that aim to reinforce the quality of international education. Indeed, many higher education students take advantage of these opportunities.

We who work in the administration and promotion of mobility programmes take for granted the benefits that study abroad programmes have for individuals. We assume that, in addition to making the students more independent and offering them new insights into their disciplines, skills and competences developed abroad are an asset in the labour market. But is this true? And can we prove it?

Does international experience matter?

Between 2012 and 2013, the Centre for International Mobility in Finland, in collaboration with the think tank Demos Helsinki, examined how Finnish employers rated the skills and knowledge acquired through international experiences in their recruitment procedures. The results of the ‘Hidden Competences’ study were first published in Finnish in 2013 and later translated into English in 2014. In a similar 2005 CIMO study on employers’ views, international experience was not considered of major importance to the recruitment process. The assumption of the new research project was that the latter would have changed. It was presumed that, in today’s megatrend era, every job was international and that employers simply could not neglect the value of international experience.

Surprisingly, the results of the 2012 survey were not any more positive. The data showed that only 36.5% of employers gave weight to skills and competences developed through international experience. Additionally, no more than 52.3% of internationally active employers confirmed to value international expertise in the recruitment procedure.

Recognising competences

Although these results were not very promising, it was important to further explore which skills employers valued and which they connected with international experience. Through further analysis of the research data, a more encouraging picture began to emerge as there were many similarities in the answers given. Many of the key competences sought from new staff members were the same as those linked with international experience: creativity, networking ability and a general interest in new things.

These hidden competences differ clearly from those traditionally associated with international experience such as language skills and cultural understanding, as well as tolerance and broad-mindedness. Through analysing the research data, three new attributes were found to highlight the hidden aspects of international competences: productivity, resilience and curiosity.

Productivity can be understood as efficiency, analytical and problem-solving ability, and credibility. Resilience reflects adaptability, knowing limits and strengths, confidence and persistence. Curiosity forms the basis for many attributes linked with international experiences: the urge to learn, search, and experience; interest towards new issues; intercultural knowledge; and, finally, networking ability. These factors form the basis of the extended understanding of international competences.

A central conclusion of the study is that international experience can be a potent indicator – although not the only one – for identifying important qualities that employers appreciate, even when employers do not initially make the connection. Moreover, it is important to note that if employers do not see the full picture of international competences, it is almost equally difficult for students and graduates to see it themselves.

The role of higher education professionals

How can we, as higher education professionals, help students recognise and articulate the skills and competences they have acquired while studying or working abroad?

Firstly, information on the new understanding of international competences should be included in any orientation or preparation programme prior to the stay abroad. Training students in advance will help make them aware of the skills they are likely to acquire through their future experience. Being prepared will, in turn, allow them to learn even more.

Secondly, in re-entry programmes and in career counselling, students should be trained to put their newly gained international competences into words. It is not enough to say “I was an Erasmus student in France”, but rather to reflect on what was learned during that time, emphasizing aspects that made them into curious, resilient and productive future employees.

The extended picture of international competences shows a clear connection between international experience and employability. The latter should make it easier to promote international mobility programmes to new generations of higher education students, encouraging them to seize the opportunity of studying abroad.

The ‘Hidden Competences’ study, as well as some additional material, can be found on the CIMO website.

Anni Kallio is Programme Manager at the Center for International Mobility (CIMO), the Finnish National Agency for the Erasmus+ programme.

The spring issue of the EAIE member magazine Forum  explores equity in access to international higher education. If you are an EAIE member, you can download a digital copy from the EAIE Member Centre and your very own hard copy of Forum will be arriving shortly. Non-EAIE members can sign up now for a 2015 membership and get access to past copies of Forum magazine online, as well as other EAIE publications.