The UK faces a productivity challenge and needs a more innovative and globally-skilled workforce and a re-balanced economy more capable of export-led growth. A new British Council report suggests that international experience helps develop the global outlook and skills that increase innovation in the workplace and support greater productivity and competitiveness.
Rebalancing the UK Economy
The UK’s need to re-balance its economy, reverse its historic trade deficit, and tackle its long-term productivity challenges is widely agreed. The British Chambers of Commerce recently emphasised the critical need for UK businesses to increase the skills range of their workforce in order to compete internationally, concluding that cultural or language differences (26%) were amongst the greatest barriers to firms wanting to export services. The cost of shortcomings in foreign language skills to the UK economy has been estimated at £48 billion in lost exports. Research by Think Global and the British Council in 2011 found that 74% of business leaders surveyed worried that young people’s horizons aren’t broad enough for the globalised economy. And a UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) survey found that almost 40% of UK companies felt that managers needed to update problem-solving skills to help drive innovation. Innovation is of course vital for productivity and hence for competitiveness and growth.
If the UK is to compete internationally, a productive and globally competitive workforce is vital. And that workforce will need a global outlook, cultural awareness, language proficiency, problem-solving skills and innovation to be able to compete effectively.
A new report by the British Council, based on a detailed study by CFE Research and LSE Enterprise, suggests international experience is a powerful way of developing these skills.
Experiencing the world and developing yourself
The research found that international experiences – including travel, exchanges, volunteering, studying and working abroad – build skills and characteristics that are associated with short and long-term benefits for individuals and, in turn, business and wider society.
Of those surveyed as part of the study, the majority who had worked, studied or extensively travelled abroad felt they worked well (81%) and could communicate confidently (71%) with people from different countries and cultures. They were more than twice as likely as those without international experience to be proficient in a foreign language.
Importantly, they were also more likely to describe themselves as having the vital transferrable skills linked to innovation, such as analytical and critical thinking (73%) and problem-solving (83%), which they believed their time abroad had helped them to develop.
Perhaps most strikingly, the report shows people with international experience have much greater involvement in innovation in the workplace – a key to the UK’s future productivity
Perhaps most strikingly, the report shows people with international experience have much greater involvement in innovation in the workplace – a key to the UK’s future productivity. 46% had been involved in research and development or product improvement activities, compared to just 28% of those without international experience.
Moreover, the duration of international exposure and degree of immersion appear to be important. These benefits increase the longer the time spent abroad. Some 85% of those with deep experience - defined as at least three months work or study abroad or over six months travelling - described themselves as confident in their ability to adapt to new and unfamiliar situations. This compared to 77% of those who had spent between one and three months overseas.