the value of living & working abroad

Sunday 28 February, 2010

It occurred to me after reading my post of a week ago on international internships that I must have been in a cranky mood, because it sounded like I didn’t endorse international internships, which I wholeheartedly do. My only point was that they simply don’t go far enough.

Foreign internships add immeasurably to an international career. It enables the intern to really learn a bit about the business culture, while hammering in business vocabulary on a regular basis. They get to learn how decisions are made elsewhere & learn the values that go into making those decisions. They learn the line where professional life stops & personal life begins.  In many places this point is very difficult to decipher.  This kind of experience beats the heck out of all the parachutists who drop in, do a deal, & think they know the local culture.

The University of South Carolina requires graduates of its Masters in International Business to complete an internship & when I was living/working in Germany, I learned more about them. The internships lasted no longer than a semester & all the participants were allowed to do was sit & watch workers do their work. Such was the status of internships at the time in Germany.  I don’t know how much this has changed since then.

On the other hand, my program took me to Germany for 2+ years.  When I arrived, I spoke fine book German, but the natives laughed at my academic vocabulary.  Over the next 1 1/2 years, unbeknownst to me, my German improved so much that friends I hadn’t seen in a long time complimented me on how much better I spoke the language.  It happened without my realizing it.  That’s how it is with many other things as well.  I had a chance to really dig in & get to know the people, language, & culture in a way few others have the opportunity to do.  I lived & worked pretty much as a local, & I could probably pass myself off to a lot of foreigners as a  local.  Natives would pick up that I’m not a native Germany relatively quickly, but I was only there for a couple of years.  It takes even longer to go local.  I had a great experience & would welcome the opportunity again.

Cultures generally & business cultures specifically are deep-seated, so you can’t learn them in a short internship.  It takes many months & years to learn get inside other people’s heads & learn what makes them tick.  You can read lots of books to get a head’s up to learn what to look for, but until you jump in & really interact with people on their own basis can you learn the lay of the land.  Internships are a great start in this process, but only that.

Unfortunately American companies see little value in sending Americans abroad for any length of time anymore.  These assignments are pretty much offered only to junior executives just starting off to get their feet wet & see how they react to a foreign culture.  The thought is set strategy globally & implement locally.  For assignments with real responsibility, these seem in many cases to go to Brits, who benefited from gaining experience world-wide as a result of working in their far-flung Commonwealth countries.  It appears as if they can’t believe Americans can actually have any credible foreign experience.  Governments patently create hurdles to hiring foreigners by requiring work & residence permits proving that a local employee can’t be found to do the work. It’s as if no one values this kind of experience.  I beg to differ.

So get international experience with an internship or any way you can.  Be prepared to put up with a lot of fights to make it happen.

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