International experience is key to unlocking innovation in the workplace, a new study from the British Council argues.
Released today, the ‘World of Experience’ report reveals that almost half of those who had spent time abroad had gone on to have an innovation focused role in their working life - including research and development and product improvement activities - compared with just one quarter of those who had no overseas experience.
As the first research of its kind to look at a whole range of different international experience – including school exchange programmes, travel, volunteering, studying and working abroad – the study evaluates the way in which these experiences help to build skills that generate short and long-term benefits for individuals, employers and UK wider society.
A large majority of those who had benefited from an international opportunity described themselves as having the abilities needed for innovation, including strong analytical and critical thinking skills (73 per cent) and strong problem-solving skills (83 per cent), believing that their experience abroad had helped them to gain those skills. More than half of those who had attended university overseas felt the experience had helped them find a job that interests them.
A quarter of those with international experience were also confident in their ability to speak a foreign language and felt that their time abroad had helped substantially in achieving this level of confidence. Among those with no international experience, fewer than one in ten said they felt proficient in a foreign language – highlighting another tangible benefit that spending time overseas can bring.
With export led economic growth remaining a key goal of UK public policy, the report suggests that international experience, as an enabler of innovation and productivity, has a potentially pivotal role to play in realising these goals. This year’s British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) International Trade Survey, for example, revealed that the government’s aim to increase exports to £1 trillion by 2020 won’t be reached until 2034* if we continue business as usual with one of the greatest barriers to exporting among services firms being cultural or language differences. A UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) survey also found that almost 40 per cent of UK companies felt that, to help drive innovation, managers needed to update problem-solving skills, making it the third most important training need behind job-specific and management skills**.
Commenting on the report, Mark Herbert, Head of Schools Programmes at the British Council, said: “There has never been a more important time for young people in the UK to have a global outlook to life and to work. International experience helps build an individual’s confidence, ability to innovate and to connect with counterparts around the globe – skills all absolutely vital for the UK’s economic ambition and place in the world.
“And as more UK businesses look to expand into overseas markets, there is increasing demand for international experience and foreign language skills amongst our workforce. We need far more of our young people to take up international opportunities and learn languages – enriching their lives and helping the UK remain prosperous on the global stage.”
Richard Hardie, Non-Executive Chair of financial services company UBS Ltd, wrote in the report’s foreword: “Ensuring that young people entering the workforce have the skills that businesses need to compete is key to the UK’s long-term prosperity. Building a successful business and protecting and expanding investment relies on a combination of technical knowledge and practical and soft skills. Businesses also need a workforce with the ability to communicate and collaborate with people from different cultures and backgrounds.
“The current deficit in foreign language skills in the UK workforce is a very real concern. As languages become increasingly important in the global marketplace, companies will inevitably look abroad to fill roles for which there are no suitable home candidates. Over time this will have worrying implications for our young people, business, and for society.”
Other key findings in the report were:
- There was significant variance between males and females at each end of the spectrum of international opportunities, with girls more likely to take part in school exchanges and men more likely to take up opportunities to work abroad. Men were also more likely to have experiences of three months or more, or multiple international experiences.
- 60 per cent of those with overseas experience now liaise with international colleagues, suppliers and customers in their working life – by comparison, just 30 per cent of those without overseas experience have this type of role in the workplace.
- People with multiple international experiences were encouraged by their first international experience to actively look for further study-, travel- or work-related opportunities abroad, with those whose initial international experience was at school age being the most inspired to look for further opportunities.
As the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities, the British Council builds relationships for the UK around the world through language, culture and education - and advocates for the learning of modern foreign languages in the UK.