Send future US business leaders abroad

As a nation, we are losing our edge. In the lab, in the classroom, and in the marketplace, the United States is seeing its competitive advantage dwindle.

The Business Roundtable, the National Academy of Sciences, and others have sounded the alarm in a series of recent reports. The most frequently invoked remedy is a massive and much-needed infusion of resources for science and math education in our schools.

There is no doubt that America's economic well-being hinges on our preeminence in science and technology, which provides the foundation for our historical leadership in producing goods and services and creating personal and national wealth. But in a globalized economy, our national well-being also hinges on future CEOs, managers, professionals, and entrepreneurs who are competent to conduct business in a global environment.

Improving science and math education is only part of the "basic training" our young people need to compete successfully in a global marketplace. They also need international knowledge, language abilities, and intercultural communications skills.

Companies are no longer sending rising managers abroad for international assignments, preferring to hire US-trained international students or local hires with international experience. American young people too often graduate without the basic skills they need to be a globally competent professional, and companies fail to seek out or reward those who are better equipped.

It is not only business that needs these international skills. Our government, too, has an urgent need for future professionals and leaders with international expertise - from the highest-level diplomats to junior Foreign Service officers, as well as commercial attachés and an expanding pool of national security and intelligence analysts at all levels. American citizens also need global education to understand the value of America's investment in foreign assistance and engagement with international organizations. America's national health depends on citizens with international experience to increase public engagement with issues of worldwide concern.

The Institute of International Education, on whose board we serve, released its latest study-abroad data last week in "Open Doors," an annual survey conducted with funding from the Department of State. Those data show that study abroad more than doubled in the past decade, to a record high of 191,321 students receiving credit this past year.

The good news is that we already have in place an effective mechanism to build language and cultural knowledge at the undergraduate level. Hundreds of US campuses are sending their students abroad each year. But thousands are not, and the vast majority of American students don't even own a passport.

The bad news is that this number is barely 1 percent of the 19 million students enrolled in US higher education. We still have a long way to go before American students are able to participate routinely, as European students do, in a semester or year abroad with full funding from the European Union, and full academic credit awarded upon their return.

The worse news is that human resources professionals and line managers do not appear to value experiences abroad when making hiring decisions. Studies by IIE and other national exchange organizations have shown that while CEOs express their conviction that international competence is important, that view is not shared by campus recruiters and is not being reflected in hirings and promotions.

The lesson is clear: Business leaders need to demonstrate the economic value of study abroad by rewarding international experience and language and cultural abilities in their hiring and advancement practices.

The private sector must also support international study with financial means. Several flagship programs of the US government, such as the Fulbright, Gilman, and National Security Education Programs and private initiatives such as the Freeman Awards for Study in Asia have begun to attract greater numbers of US students. Interest in these programs is strong, with applications increasing sharply since 2001.

Far-sighted companies and foundations like Goldman Sachs and General Electric have invested in international programs to prepare students for future leadership in a global arena. More corporate leaders need to step up to the plate and support such programs, and also reward students who participate by putting a priority on new hires with global experience.

We challenge business leaders to speak out in support of study abroad, and to require a basic level of international competence in their professional and managerial workforce. Talk to your employees. Talk to your alma mater. Talk to your children. The message is clear. The next generation must leave the country - and come back with their minds open to the world.

Henry Kaufman is chairman emeritus of the Institute of International Education and Thomas S. Johnson is chairman.

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