To explore these questions in the Australian context, we conducted individual, semi-structured interviews with two groups of informants: 14 recent graduates who had undertaken international study/internships while at university and were subsequently employed in graduate positions, and eight employers of recent graduates. Both graduates and employers were purposefully selected in order to provide maximum diversity regarding gender, discipline, field of employment, cultural-linguistic backgrounds, and, for graduates, host countries for their OME. In addition to ensuring diversity, only those graduates who had successfully applied for graduate positions in their chosen field were selected for this study. At the time of the interviews, our graduates had been working in their first graduate positions for a period of 6 to 12 months in the following fields; journalism, law, medicine, engineering, marketing, business, and public policy. They were based in positions around Australia and overseas.
The employers invited to participate in interviews worked in the public and private sectors, and in large and medium-sized businesses or organisations. Surprisingly, to us, many employers declined our invitation, stating the following reasons: they had not thought about the value of OME and felt they had nothing of value to say, it was not important to their business, or they had negative perceptions about OME and felt they would be unhelpful to the researchers. All employers agreeing to be interviewed were based in Australia at the time of the interview, although just over half of them represented international or globally oriented workplaces, while the rest were from locally or nationally oriented businesses. They were in leadership positions in financial planning, banking, law, public service, health, education, and telecommunications.
During the interviews, graduates were asked to tell their own story about their OME, their career aspirations, current employment, and longer-term aims. They were prompted to elaborate on approaches and strategies during each phase of their OME - preparation, time abroad, and the return home - as well as the role their OME played during the recruitment phase and day-to-day work. Employers were asked about what they generally looked for in new graduates and specifically about their perceptions of OMEs in relation to graduate employability.
The interviews, lasting between 45 minutes and one hour were recorded, transcribed, and analysed thematically. Beginning with some potential themes gleaned from our literature review, we took an inductive and iterative approach to analysing the transcripts, moving recursively, back and forth between the transcripts, the literature, and emerging themes until we found the best fit (Braun & Clarke, 2006). All participants were given the opportunity to comment on the emerging findings during the analytical process, and these were incorporated into the final analysis.
All participants understood the ethical implications of their involvement in the study and signed consent forms before their interviews. To protect their privacy, we have avoided the provision of detailed personal information and have assigned numbers to employers (for example, El), and to graduates (for example, Gl).
Findings regarding recent graduate and employer perceptions of the benefits of OME to employability
Not surprisingly, analysis of the interviews mirrored previous studies regarding perceived benefits of OME and perceptions of personal growth. Following a brief summary of these findings below, we elaborate on additional findings which bring new insights to our understanding of perceptions about OMEs, specifically in terms of employability. Employers’ and graduates’ perceptions of OME are grouped thematically: first, in terms of its relevance to recruitment and early careers; second, in relation to the type of OME undertaken; and third, in relation to the specific strategies employed by the new graduates to realise the professional value of their OME.
Our graduate participants had little doubt that their OMEs propelled their personal growth. In line with previous research (Potts, 2015; Van Hoof & Verbeeten, 2005), they spoke of developing life skills (such as adaptability), resourcefulness, resilience, problem solving, patience, help-seeking behaviours, organisational skills, interpersonal skills (such as rapport building, conflict resolution, negotiation, assessing, and trustworthiness), leadership, and independence. Overall, they felt they developed more confidence in their capacity to handle challenging situations in the future. Many commented on their development of empathy and worldliness - a sense of perspective and appreciation for alternate worldviews. Some felt they had become less egocentric, self-conscious, culturally blind, and dependent as a result of their experiences overseas. Interestingly, while the graduates emphasised different aspects of personal growth from OMEs, they all believed that it enhanced their employability, and they gave specific examples of using such skills and attitudes during recruitment and while at work.
Employers, too, unanimously saw personal growth as an outcome of OME, although the degree that it was valued in relation to employability differed between employers. For example, E6, a HR manager for a corporate investment firm with national and international bases and clients, “place[d] a good degree of emphasis [on the personal growth gained from OME] because ... it demonstrates courage, get up and go, resilience.” E3, the foreign-born owner/manager of a locally based financial planning firm with some international clients, also saw some value in OME related to personal growth, but he placed more emphasis on work experience in the local context.
Relevance at the recruitment phase
All graduates felt that their OME helped them successfully apply for their current positions. They were thoughtful and proactive in drawing attention to experiences and in highlighting benefits in terms of relevance to their prospective employers in their resumes and interviews. They felt that their OME gave them something to talk about in their interview and helped them to impart a sense of who they were and the qualities they possessed. For example, some referred to their OME as concrete evidence of their ability to move to a new city and establish social and professional networks. Because they felt confident in their ability to meet these and other associated challenges, they generally felt the interview process was in itself less daunting than it would otherwise have been.
While all employers we interviewed recognised the personal growth benefits of OME, they stressed that in and of itself OME would not automatically make students more employable. As E4, the HR manager of a national accounting firm explains, “I don’t think we would view the [OME] in itself as something that would add value to the organisation.” Some felt OME contributed to the overall appeal of the candidate. E6 viewed it “very favourably,” for a number of reasons, as he explains:
Strategically, [E6’s company] has a global growth agenda.... So, having people that have some outside-of-Australia experience is really beneficial for that reason. Second, I think it builds a great sense of maturity and independence and worldliness. Being away from the nest, out of your comfort zone, it makes you grow up pretty quickly. I think that is a really strong attribute ... it demonstrates courage, get up and go, resilience - when you’re a long way from home. The third thing, for me, is around perspective. Having worked offshore I know that Australia’s just a small part of the world. Bringing a global mind-set is a very valuable thing.
In contrast to employers like E6, some had less positive views of OMEs and explained that this shaped their approach to recruitment interviews. Several employers emphasised the importance of locally derived knowledge and work experience, and feared that time spent overseas meant less time to develop locally relevant knowledge and skills. This concern was brought home to one of the graduates in our study. G7, while a civil engineering student, had spent all his university holidays on language exchange programs in Asia. He was unsuccessful in securing employment as a civil engineer in Australia, because employers preferred to recruit graduates who had spent their holidays gaining Australian industry experience. At the time of the interview, G7 was working for an Australian trade consultancy firm based in China.
Finally, new OME graduates were perceived to be “flight risks”3 by some employers, even those who were generally positive in their views of OME. As E4 explains:
The only risk we would see [with OME graduates is] that person could be a flight risk for us. They might not necessarily be looking to stay long term ... they might have an interest in being based overseas further into their career. That’s not necessarily always an issue but it might ring some alarm bells for us when we are recruiting... So that kind of more international, global focus might actually work against them.
Relevance in the workplace
Beyond recruitment, all new graduates and some employers felt graduates’ OME held benefits for employability once in the workplace. Graduates spoke of many instances when they were able to draw on their international experience to enhance interactions within multicultural workplaces or to create common ground with co-workers by swapping travel stories. They also felt that it was less daunting to move to a new city and establish new social networks, they were less afraid to ask for help and own up to mistakes, and they coped better with day-to-day ups and downs, partly as a result of their OME. G9, a graduate in a marketing firm explains:
Travelling helps to train your mind to focus on what’s important in those moments when you’re being bombarded by thousands of different demands and wondering what direction you need to go in, what to pay attention to.
Some employers mentioned that they capitalised on their OME graduates’ experiences, for example, by pairing a graduate whose OME was in China with a client from Beijing. More often, however, graduates and employers saw OME as a long-term investment, the value of which would be most apparent later in their careers. Because they had observed that leaders in their respective industries had travelled and worked internationally, they reflected that international experience, even if not immediately useful, might be more important once they gained more experience. Only G4 already felt that the skills she developed through OME had helped her to progress her public service career more swiftly than her peers had.
As the interviews with employers progressed, we noticed the employers tended to become more reflective about previously unrecognised benefits of OME. In the reflective space of the interview, some initially less positive employers came to mention several potential advantages of an OME graduate as the interview progressed. Advantages recognised with reflection included the following: enhanced cultural awareness and the capacity to speak languages other than English, particularly Mandarin, in the multi-cultural communities that their locally based businesses served; the professional value of the graduate’s development of “get up and go,” tenacity, and perseverance; and international connections. Such shifts in perspective during the interview process suggest the potential value for universities in engaging employers in dialogue in a manner somewhat akin to “learning conversations” (Laurillard, 1997). This point will be taken up further in the following discussion section.
Interestingly, one employer, E5, the CEO of a firm which organises international internships for students, observed that “Australia lags behind the rest of the world” in understanding the benefits of OME to employability. Mirroring research findings (e.g., Teichler, 2012), E5 explained that, in her experience, U.S. and European employers in particular seek to recruit culturally aware graduates, given the increasingly globalised marketplace: “If you want to prepare people for the world, and for global business and global career opportunities, then they need to do that abroad. I don’t believe you can get... real insight to another country and the culture until you live in that country.”
How important was the nature of the OME?
Employers were also asked whether the type of OME, in terms of its duration, nature (work, study, or both), and location made a difference to its value. In contrast to some studies showing distinct preferences for specific types of OMEs among some employers (Franklin, 2010; Norris & Gillespie, 2009), our interviewees generally provided quite nuanced responses. Neither employers nor graduates believed that it mattered significantly whether the OME was part of a traditional student exchange or a work-related experience. Our employers and graduates generally felt that longer experiences - one to two semesters of study, or three- to six-month internships - offered the time, space, and opportunities students needed to gain value from OME, whereas shorter experiences seemed too close to a holiday to get students “out of their comfort zones.” Nevertheless, employers understood that that the quality of OMEs differed between people, and that these differences could only be appreciated by talking to individual employees. As E7 explained:
On face value, a longer stint or an internship abroad seems more beneficial than just going off and doing a semester. But you generally don’t know until you speak to the individual to see what they’ve gone through, how they’ve grown and valued the experience ... what they got out of it.
Disciplinary differences influenced whether or not the OME location was important. The engineering and medical graduates had chosen destinations that equipped them with knowledge or skills that could not be obtained through study in their home universities. For graduates of law, marketing, and journalism, however, the destination was not perceived to matter so much.
Our study concurred with Potts’s (2015) Australian study in finding that graduates who had had multiple OMEs emphasised their value. Through multiple OMEs, they believed they had become more comfortable challenging themselves; for example, by spending more time with locals and local students and less time with fellow exchange students. They found each OME went more smoothly, as they adapted more quickly and were then able to turn their attention to other professional opportunities. For example, when medical student G5 went on her third international exchange, she felt confident enough to ask her supervisors if she could do a clinical audit for the surgical ward at the hospital she was placed at. On G4’s third exchange, she managed to work with locals to organise a donation scheme whereby exchange students could donate unwanted furniture at the conclusion of their stay.