Blog Post

Global Competence and the 21st Century Workforce: A Case for Virtual Exchange

Authored by Heather Singmaster and Verónica Vázquez Ugalde (Digital Promise)

Rapid economic, technological, and social changes connect people across the globe like never before. For this reason, global competence — the ability to understand issues of global significance and to compete, connect, and cooperate on an international scale — is crucial not only in the 21st century workplace, but also in supporting collective well-being and the sustainable development of humanity. 

A 2022 study from Google listed the “rising demand for global problem solvers” as one of three trends for future employees. Recently, we have witnessed how local issues can have global implications and vice versa. The COVID-19 pandemic started as a local issue in China, but rapidly spread across the world. Meanwhile, changing weather patterns across the world impact communities and industries, from food supplies to tourism to architecture. While these are only a few examples, they underscore how important it is for the 21st century workforce to understand how global trends affect our lives and places of work and to be equipped to solve problems on a global scale. 

One common misconception is that global competence is only relevant in the context of multinational corporations or working abroad. However, at the local level we are seeing demographic shifts transform our society. In the United States, if projected trends come true, it is expected that the proportion of people who identify as “non-hispanic white” will no longer be the majority by 2045. While population growth will continue, an increase in immigration will be the largest contributing factor, as opposed to a natural increase due to the aging population. These changes make the case for global competence even stronger. As students enter the workforce right at home, they need to be prepared to collaborate with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures in their local communities. This aligns with a study by Deloitte and the Global Business Coalition for Education, which lists cultural awareness as an employability skill people will need to succeed in the future workplace.

Global competence is therefore necessary for all career pathways. While the 2023 World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report shares that climate change adaptation, cybersecurity, agriculture, and digital trade will experience strong job growth—all notably interrelated with the international marketplace—global connections can be found in every sector. For example, in construction, one might consider sustainable building materials. A hair stylist considers how haircare varies by culture. Businesses must consider the marketplace beyond our borders if they want to expand. Digital Promise compiled examples from across pathways as part of our Global Readiness Examples and Topics (GREAT) tool. 

The best way to equip our future workforce is by giving students the opportunity to authentically learn from and collaborate with people from different parts of the world and different cultures. Unfortunately, too few young people have the opportunity to engage with peers in different communities and cultures directly through study abroad or travel. Currently, only about 10 percent of college students, and even fewer younger students, study abroad. Virtual exchange, however, makes it possible for anyone, including young people in low income communities, in rural areas, and students facing unique challenges, to have meaningful international exchange experiences at low or no cost. Data consistently shows that virtual exchange has a positive impact on participants’ global competencies. K-12 virtual exchange participants surveyed in the Stevens Initiative’s 2023 Impact and Learning Report showed positive development in skills that are important at their age, including knowledge of other people and cultures. They also reported statistically significant positive changes in multiple domains of global competence across K-12 as well as higher education. 

Young peoples’ success in the workforce will depend on their levels of global competence as their careers will play out on the global stage. Employers, customers, and colleagues could be from anywhere in the world, regardless of whether they work for a global company or at a local company. By giving young people opportunities to investigate the world, consider different perspectives, and take meaningful action through virtual exchange, we’re empowering the next generation of young people to succeed in the interconnected workforce of tomorrow.

This article was developed for the spring 2024 Breakouts campaign, a collection of multimedia projects that capture the most engaging, inspiring, and insightful illustrations of the power of virtual exchange. 

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