International expertise in the 21st century
Five years on, the results of our 2012-13 study seem even more timely and relevant than when the study was initially published. Our conclusions preceded many discussions that have taken place over the past few years around the future of work, new ways of understanding skills, and initiatives to reform education and match the needs of the emerging digital, global, and interconnected era. In particular, the projected transformation to post-industrial employment patterns cannot be ignored when talking about skills required in employment. The following sections outline how our results sit with the current debates.
The future of work and employment
One of the big global debates over the past five years, at least since publication of The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in 2014, has been the projected disappearance of large number of jobs due to rapid advances in digital technologies, such as the emergence of artificial intelligence and advanced robotics. In the thirty years preceding, debate centred on the disappearance of blue collar and manufacturing jobs. The new discourse on employment, however, focuses on the end of routine jobs, regardless of whether those routines are built around manual or cognitive skills.
The extent of projected job losses over the coming decades varies greatly - between 10% and 60% in developed countries. While there is significant interest around which professions are likely to experience decline or increased demand, this discussion may be of secondary importance. Current industrialised economies may be entering a period very similar to the “Engels Pause” experienced between 1790 and 1850 (Hautamaki, Leppanen, Мокка, & Neuvonen, 2017). During that period, industrialising societies went through several decades of job loss and real wage stagnation before they could take advantage of the benefits of new technologies and methods of production. Productivity started to grow when the institutions supporting society and business were redesigned according to the new operating practices. These institutions included education providers. Our education systems were created to meet the employment needs of an industrial society. During the process of industrialisation, the need for educated workers soared, and states started providing education for the masses. This, in turn, benefitted industries, as educated people accelerated technological innovation. States began to invest in the public provision of infrastructure, as well as in science and technologies. This investment boosted both economic growth and social well-being (Allen, 2017).
The big question is whether this same formula of interlinked increases in education and technology will also guide us through the current transformation; will the jobs lost in manufacturing and services eventually be replaced by jobs that require more skills and provide better income? If this scenario is to transpire, traditional modes of teaching and learning are likely to require significant transformation to prepare students for the realities of the changing global labour market.
The rise of metacognitive skills: the growing demand for curiosity and resilience
Changing societies, businesses, and work life highlight the need for a new set of skills and competences. These competences are often described as metacognitive skills - skills that contribute to one’s awareness of one’s own thought, and one’s ability to apply skills, once learned, to new situations (Lai, 2011). As fewer jobs offer long-term security, and many job descriptions change constantly, metacognitive skills, such as resilience and curiosity, serve as important tools for individuals to cope and even thrive in current and future work life.
Resilience is a quality that helps individuals avoid the stress associated with a changing work life. (Shatte, Perlman, Smith, & Lynch, 2017). Resilient workers adapt, know their limits and strengths, and are confident in what they know and persistent in their endeavours. While these are attributes traditionally linked with a good employee, they are expected to be even more valuable in rapidly changing working environments where stable careers are increasingly rare. Resilience enables employees to recover and continue working even as the context of work changes.
Curiosity, on the other hand, fosters both individual learning and a sense of meaning that give an individual the agility to thrive in the future labour market: an intrinsic interest in new phenomena and developments. For a company, curiosity leads to previously unknown possibilities and opportunities. This, in turn, can lead to creating value in new, often digital, ecosystems. For the public sector, curiosity enables the capacity to experiment and learn. It is likely that curiosity will continue to raise its status as a societal strength in the future, leading to a significant impact on the job market. This is due to the increasing complexity of societal problems requiring innovative solutions.
Curiosity, resilience, and the global discourse on skills
How do resilience and curiosity sit with the broader debate on future skills? A new discourse on skills and competences has emerged since our 2012-13 study, linked to the projected labour market trends described above. According to the OECD, “skills have become the global currency of the 21st century” (OECD, 2016). While the OECD does not define these skills in more detail, it can be implicitly understood that the concept of 21st-century skills here refers to a broad set of knowledge, skills, competences, work habits, and character traits that are considered critically important to success in today’s world. There appears to be growing consensus around the idea that employees of the future require a broad set of skills. However, definitions differ of what these skills actually include. For example, some define 21st-century skills as transversal (generic) skills, others as interdisciplinary skills. According to the World Economic Forum, students require strong skills in areas such as language, arts, mathematics, and science but they must also be adept at skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, persistence, collaboration, and curiosity (World Economic Forum, 2015).
More recently, the U.S. based Institute for International Education (HE) Centre for Academic Mobility Research and Impact compiled an overview of studies on new types of hard, soft, and (meta)skills (Farrugia & Sanger, 2017). The study clustered them into cognitive competencies (cognitive processes and strategies, knowledge, and creativity), intrapersonal competencies (intellectual openness, work ethic, and positive self-evaluation), and interpersonal competencies (teamwork and leadership).
The ideas of a multiplicity of required skills and of clustering of these competences are echoed in the work carried out in our survey of 2012-13, where the extended understanding of international competences encompassed productivity, resilience, and curiosity, underscored by smaller skill sets and competences. Similar results have also been highlighted by other research in the field of psychology and behavioural sciences, especially skills related to managing and mediating complex social relationships, such as communication, team working skills, cooperation, empathy, and networking (Zimmerman & Meyer, 2013). Furthermore, both our study and those of others (Maddux et al., 2013) have identified increased multicultural engagement as a step towards a growth in integrative complexity, which can also be a key to resilience and constructive curiosity.
Implications for the field of education and working life
Based on the results of this research, it seems that more work needs to be done by authorities, educational institutions, and employers to highlight the range of skills and attributes developed via international experiences. These are, after all, the kind of skills sought after by the labour market and society.
First, educational institutions, authorities, and agencies promoting learning abroad need to engage in a more thorough dialogue with both public and private employers to make the hidden competences understood and recognised. There is a need to discuss the learning outcomes and their definitions and descriptions as well as manifestations to be able to present expertise acquired through international experience in a way that speaks to employers, and so that we can improve their relevance on the labour market. Educational institutions need to engage in defining and making visible, also, the broader learning outcomes of international experiences, those that will cover more than the traditional language skills, inter- cultural competences, or tolerance. This wider concept of international expertise will, in this case, encompass at least such skills as productivity, resilience, and curiosity.
Second, students and young people need tools and guidance to help them recognise their hidden expertise, and also to be able to better describe the competences gained, thereby, making them visible and relevant for future employers. And third, government policy and, particularly, education systems will need to revise their outlook on key skills, at all levels of education, to also encompass such skills and attributes as are highlighted in this research as key to facing the future challenges successfully.
Notably, since our study in 2012-13, some developments have also taken place within this arena. In, for example, Finland, in contrast to most of the world’s countries, 21st-century skills have recently been considered in the design of basic education. A new national core curriculum for basic education was implemented in schools in 2016 by the Finnish National Agency for Education (EDUFI). The focus was set on transversal competences and on working across school subjects.
If, as our study suggests, international experiences give rise to competences like resilience and curiosity, the European Union’s Erasmus+ programme can be seen to already have addressed students’ hidden competences throughout its 30-year history. However, the issue of the broader effects of international experiences has not been widely recognised by the Erasmus-i- programme until very recently. In fact, the topic of learning abroad was long seen as an insular, exceptional, and separated learning experience. The broader links and situating learning abroad within a wider framework were properly addressed for the first time only in 2014 in the Erasmus Impact Study (European Commission, 2014) and referred to more recently in the 2018 mid-term evaluation of the Erasmus-i- -programme (European Commission, DG Education and Culture, 2018).
Furthermore, the newest OECD PISA assessment of 2018 (OECD PISA website) will consider what is referred to as “global competences,” based on the
OECD PISA Global Competence Framework (OECD and Asia Society, 2018). The framework encompasses such skill sets as the capacity to examine local, global, and intercultural issues; to understand and appreciate the perspectives and world views of others; to engage in open, appropriate, and effective interactions with people from different cultures; and to act for collective well-being and sustainable development.
The way forward: international expertise as a route to future skills
The transitions happening in working life, within the job markets, and with regards to future skills and competences seem to be continuous. A concrete outcome of this is the growing labour market relevance of the so-called metacogni- tive skills. These skills highlight the ability to learn, grow, collaborate with others, and prosper in future societies. As is suggested by the previous sections, both the theoretical debate on 21st-century skills and the policy initiatives are beginning to recognise the potential of international experiences to foster such skills. This link between international experiences and sets of metacognitive skills highly valued in working life now, is something we demonstrated in our 2012-13 study.
While there is growing evidence supporting the value of learning abroad and of other international experience in developing critical employability skills and competences, the recognition of its key role is restricted by its current framing as mainly language skills, tolerance, and cultural knowledge. There is also a growing threat, the thought that this kind of framing of learning abroad cannot, at least in the long run, build societal inclusion for different groups of people as well as cohesion between these groups. Instead, international expertise could end up being highly divisive, something solely belonging to “Anywheres” (people with university education, access to international job markets, and a highly mobile, global lifestyle) with a widening divide with the “Somewheres” (those rooted to specific place, usually with conservative values and less education). The potential emergence of such a gap, already by itself, underlines the need for broader understanding of international expertise and of the ways how it can be achieved and of the benefits it can provide. An extended understanding of international expertise crystallises the connection between international experience and employability in the coming century, for both policy and practice.