November 6, 2013 11:10 am

How valuable is international work experience?

As companies grow they spread across the globe, creating international career opportunities – and these are expected to increase dramatically.

Recent research by PwC, the professional services firm, predicts the number of workers who will take on global assignments will rise by 50 per cent over the next decade.

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The findings also suggest that graduates are more than willing to help companies fulfil their growth ambitions by working abroad – but only 11 per cent of these graduates appear happy to go to India and only 2 per cent to China.

But how valuable is international work experience, and why are China and India such low-rated destinations?

Oliver Watson, managing director for UK, North America and the Middle East at Michael Page, the search firm, says it is worth a great deal. “Companies are operating over so many international boundaries, so the more languages and experience with different cultures you can bring to a company, the more you can help expand its global reach,” he says.

Peter Lacy, managing director of strategy for the Asia-Pacific region at Accenture, the management consultancy, says it is a crucial differentiator for current and future leaders. “Our clients increasingly operate seamlessly across borders. Our people need to be able to do the same,” he says. “That mindset comes from being exposed to new business cultures and experiences that come with international placements.”

This is backed up by Ben Searls, a senior manager at recruiter Badenoch & Clark. He believes those without work experience abroad will struggle to get the top jobs. “If you have international work experience, you’re likely to be confident and have an outgoing personality, which helps you engage with stakeholders,” he says.

His colleague Andrew Caulfield, a managing consultant in the firm’s legal division, agrees. Having experience of different cultures is seen as vital. “All lawyers are regarded as more suitable if they have had exposure to an international platform.”

The popularity, or otherwise, of certain countries seems to depend on sector. Mr Watson says for people working in finance, the financial hubs are always going to be most in demand. “London, New York, Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo are the places people want to be. Somewhere like Buenos Aires perhaps counts for less than New York when you work in the banking industry,” he says.

For structural engineers, on the other hand, the Middle East, and Central and South America are ideal. “Any place with a big infrastructure spend,” he adds.

“Those going to China or India need to be more adventurous, but for the right people they could provide excellent opportunities. They are interesting, and some businesses do find it easier to place people in China and India than others.”

Mr Lacy, who himself lives with his young family in Shanghai, thinks China is a great place to get experience. He runs Accenture’s strategy business and its sustainability services division and believes China is “one of the most important markets for these issues and will define the global business context for decades”.

China is especially attractive to him as it means being at the centre of the challenges faced by multinational companies doing business there, while domestic companies are themselves looking to “go global”. He believes markets such as China, India, and those belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, such as Thailand and Indonesia, are stimulating places to learn.

But Mr Searls does not see any desire from job candidates to work in China and India at all. He recruits for the finance sector and many young professionals are often more concerned about the safety of their families than their career. “Australia is a top ranking destination for people who are taking their families. The US is always a popular choice, too,” he says.

Mr Caulfield adds that countries such as China and India often have certain market restrictions. India is closed to external lawyers, for example. The cultural divide can often be a turn-off for westerners, too. “Australia and the US are popular because you get experience abroad, but there are elements of cultural continuity.”

Saudi Arabia is another unpopular choice, particularly with female job seekers, due to the severe lifestyle restrictions. “Saudi has a huge number of jobs, but female employees can’t do anything, so they’re not going to go there,” says Mr Watson.

Mr Lacy, on the other hand, is finding China to be his most interesting assignment. “It is a fascinating life experience for me and my young family – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn about one of the most historic and exciting cultures in the world,” he says.

His work running regional businesses at Accenture has taken him to Costa Rica, Latin America and Brussels, Belgium, but he says China is different. Cultural differences and “the west’s relative blind spot to the real intricacies of its history and culture” mean he has enjoyed a steep but very rewarding learning curve both in business and personally.

“This was more pronounced than my spells in continental Europe and Latin America, where the cultural reference points, while different, are more recognisable and the business culture has more in common with the UK,” he says.

Though graduates are keen to work abroad, their expectations will almost certainly have to adjust as the best opportunities will be in future growth markets, which include China and India. Mr Lacy adds that there are also development opportunities and chances to take on responsibility in Africa.

The PwC report predicts that the need to fill positions around the world is likely to see businesses use staff more flexibly.

It also expects the traditional flow of talent from west to east will be reversed as emerging markets become even more important. It sees skilled workers from emerging economies moving into developed countries, often on short-term assignments, to gain valuable experience that can then be used in their home markets.

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