Gear Up to Compete in the Global Economy

Gear Up to Compete in the Global Economy

Occasionally you meet people whose lifelong dream is to join the global economy. They speak foreign languages, travel abroad, study international relations and have scenic posters from France, Japan or Brazil adorning their walls.

Yet expatriation or foreign business travel is a viable career path for less than 1 percent of us. These days, most of us are thrust into global careers without having to learn another language or leave the comforts of our hometown. “It surprises lots of people to learn that about 80 percent of international jobs -- that is, jobs with American employers that require you to deal extensively with other countries -- are located in the US,” said Katherine Brooks, director of liberal arts career services at the University of Texas at Austin, in a Fortune interview.

Embracing career opportunities created outside the US is, well, foreign to many Americans. Few Americans have traveled and experienced diverse cultures outside our borders, says Lori Blackman, principal at DNL Global, a retained search firm that represents a number of multinational companies. “We tend to not have passports or be multilingual in the way workers in other countries are,” she says. Less than one-third of Americans hold a passport; by contrast, twice as many Canadians carry them and every European Union citizen has one.

Most of us experience globalization in the corporate rush to find new markets, source suppliers and tap talent in emerging markets. Suddenly, we find ourselves dealing with or supporting customers, suppliers or coworkers located in other countries. We call an 800 line for computer support, reach a call center in Bangalore, India, and become flustered when the communication falters. In a way, that breakdown underscores our lack of preparation to deal with other cultures, languages, work styles and global standards.

But a lack of preparation should not be confused with an inability to compete in global markets.

A World of Change

Of course, global competition is very real and has resulted in an unprecedented job churn affecting thousands of workers in manufacturing and services fields, such as computer programming. As described in Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, most knowledge-based jobs can be conducted anywhere Internet service is available. In this tough new world of global competition, the safe bet is to think about globalization and your career this way: Your mission is to master new skills and smoothly adapt to new people, places and processes.

If you stay on top of your game and sharpen your skills, you will remain marketable both in the US and abroad. “What you want to have is a situation not of job security, where you have your job for life, but employment security, where you know that if you lose your job, you can always find a new one,” says Jacob Kirkegaard, research associate at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, DC.

Building Blocks for a Global Career

The global economy sounds daunting, but with preparation, it can be a seamless transition for skilled -- and especially well-traveled -- workers. Here are a range of global career building blocks to consider:

  • Sharpen your resume. Use a resume service such as Monster’s to create a world-class resume and cover letter.
  • Do you need a CV? Fortunately, an American resume and a global CV are essentially the same thing, according to Ronald Krannich and Wendy Enelow, authors of Best Resumes and CVs for International Jobs. In the US, CVs are generally needed only for academic positions, where you must list all your publications, awards and activities.
  • If you seek an international job, in which you are on assignment or permanently stationed abroad, you can find opportunities on Monster’s Global Gateway. You can also buy or search for a list of international recruiters or browse a list of the world’s largest employers.
  • If you’re a student, strongly consider studying abroad for a summer, semester or year. The University of Kansas, for instance, says 25 percent of its undergraduates study abroad. That may sound impressive, yet the goal is to send 40 percent out of the country, says David Gaston, director of the school’s career center.
  • If you’re an executive planning an advancement strategy, consider a global leadership program conducted by your alma mater or a third party, such as the Center for Creative Leadership, which offers the new Advancing Global Leadership program.
  • Foreign travel, if you can afford it, can not only provide a memorable life experience, but it can also help prepare you for job interviews with multinational companies.

In 1971 a popular Coca-Cola commercial brought together fresh young faces from around the world to perform a catchy song that pledged, “I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony.” Trouble is, it conveyed the impression that the rest of the world should sing Coca-Cola’s (read: America’s) tune. The lesson is clear: The global economy doesn’t work like that and neither will your career. Globalization is about learning to harmonize with others.

[A frequent public speaker on topics such as the globalization of work and social networking, San Francisco-based Rusty Weston blogs about career-management issues for My Global Career and Fast Company.]