In 2013 the German Federal Government and the sixteen states adopted a joint strategy aimed at ensuring that by the end of the decade at least one in two university graduates had gained study-related experience abroad and that at least one in three had studied abroad for a minimum three-month period and/or acquired 15 ECTS credit points. The enhancement of international mobility for studying and work placement was also a major goal set in the Communiqué of the latest Bologna Ministerial Conference in Yerevan in 2015. The Ministerial Conference sees international mobility as a powerful means to expand the range of competences and the work options for students and therefore links it closely with the enhancement of employability, another important goal of the Bologna Process.
Aim of the study and research questions
Employment opportunities for Bachelor and Master graduates with international experience was the subject of two earlier studies commissioned by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). The main aim of the present study was to explore the acceptance of graduates with study-related international experience in the German labor market. Additionally, the findings of the previous studies were to be verified. The study focused on the following main questions:
- To what extent do employers expect internationalization to impact on their organization in the next five years? How international are current job descriptions in their firms?
- How important are international skills to German employers compared to general skills?
- How relevant is study-related mobility (study or work placement) in the recruitment process compared to factors in the CV?
- Do employers believe that study-related mobility enhances intercultural, academic and social skills?
- Are mobile graduates better prepared for international job tasks? Do mobile graduates generally perform better than non-mobile graduates?
- Which type of mobility is most valued by employers?
The study is based on a quantitative survey of 1,008 HR managers from all sectors and company sizes. The questionnaire for the quantitative survey was developed in close cooperation with the National Agency for EU Higher Education Cooperation, a department within the DAAD, and is based on a literature review and six qualitative in-depth interviews with employers. The online survey was conducted in July and August 2015 in the context of the Human Resource Panel of the Cologne Institute for Economic Research. Since 2010, the HR Panel has conducted a survey of various issues in the field of human resources up to three times a year. The survey is ad-dressed to those responsible for human resources in German companies with at least one employee. The selection of companies to be surveyed is randomized.
The impact of internationalization on the economy and the workplace is growing
As official statistics show, Germany’s export-oriented economy is deeply involved in the world-wide process of globalization. The particularly high proportion of GDP represented by exports makes clear that Germany‘s prosperity is founded on international trade. A quarter of total employment depends directly or indirectly on exports. Moreover, the growing share of foreign value added in German gross exports shows how firmly Germany is embedded in global value chains. This form of international interdependence will be boosted by the technical potential of digitization. The results of the present survey reveal a growing awareness of internationalisation at the company level. Nearly half of the enterprises which employ graduates or plan to do so indicate that the relevance of international activities, for example the frequent use of foreign languages or international contacts in everyday work, will increase in the next five years. One in four companies organizes work in international teams, a form of organization which - according to previous research - boosts innovation. Moreover, the HR managers interviewed pointed out that cooperation in internationally mixed teams is gaining in importance as even the domestic workforce is becoming increasingly diverse. Previous studies revealed that international activities had a positive impact on productivity, investment rate and employment. The results of the present survey underline this interdependence: Four out of ten respondents state that international activities are relevant for the company’s success.
Cognitive and social competences are most important for employers
Although definitions of work-related skills and competences vary widely, a certain consensus can be observed in the literature: For most employers the two main categories of competence are occupation-specific knowledge and skills and social skills. According to a majority of employer surveys, in a service-oriented and globalized economy such social skills as the ability to communicate and cooperate effectively with diverse kinds of people are essential. The results of the present survey and the interviews with HR managers confirm these findings. Cognitive competences, methodological skills and knowledge acquired during tertiary education, social skills and personality traits represent three quarters of the profile required of graduates. Compared to these general competences even companies with extensive international activities regard such international competences as foreign language ability, knowledge of specific countries, societies and economies, and intercultural skills as less important. However, statements made by some of the HR managers interviewed suggest that this distinction between general and international competences needs to be questioned. While intercultural competence is associated by the interviewees primarily with openness and tolerance in dealing with people from different cultural backgrounds, they simultaneously connect it with openness in dealing with new situations. For the personnel managers interviewed, these skills and attitudes are important for the work in their companies independently of any specific international context. This point of view reveals a strong link between intercultural competence, social skills and personality traits.
In a CV, work experience is more important than experience of studying abroad
As to the rating of CV attributes at the beginning of the recruitment process, the results of the literature review and the present survey concur. Employers pay most attention to relevant work experience gained while the applicant was studying, and even companies with international activities consider time spent abroad of lesser importance. But when candidates have similarly qualifications, for half of all companies and for the great majority of international companies with employees abroad, international experience is the tipping factor. For the majority of employers, the duration of studies is a more important CV attribute than international experience. Nevertheless, a prolongation of studies due to a semester abroad is accepted by a majority of the respondents.
Employers see studying abroad as a way to improve general as well as international competences
As to the effects of international experience on the development of personality traits, the literature review produced conflicting research results due to both a self-selecting bias and the influence of external factors. Nevertheless, some methodologically sound studies which successfully deal with these endogenous and exogenous factors reveal a positive influence of international sojourns on the development of such personality traits as openness and likeability. The respondents of the present survey assume that international sojourns enhance several competences. As was to be expected, the largest positive effect is thought to be on foreign language skills and intercultural competence. However, the benefits for social skills and personality traits are seen as nearly equally important. Surprisingly, even cognitive competences and course-related knowledge is considered to be enhanced by studying abroad. This positive perception of the effects of international sojourns is even shared by companies without any international activities.
According to employers, mobile graduates perform better in general and are more qualified for international tasks
Assessing the impact of international mobility on labour market entry and career opportunities is also subject to such methodological problems as self-selection bias and the influence of external factors, as the research literature points out. Earlier studies provide some evidence that mobile graduates are more likely to obtain jobs in international business than non-mobile graduates. This finding is confirmed by the results of the present survey. Some two thirds of the respondents stated that mobile graduates are better able to use foreign languages, to handle international contacts as a part of their daily work and to work in internationally mixed teams. However, the literature suggests it is far less evident that international mobility reduces unemployment rates or in-creases pay levels. According to some studies, pay is influenced by individual performance and by micro- and macroeconomic factors. Others show that international experience related to a course of studies can boost income and accelerate career development if it is an essential component of the job description and the employee is able to make use of his or her experience. In the present survey and in the interviews, employers with first-hand experience of observing employees who had studied abroad noticed a generally higher level of performance than among graduates without such experience.
Employers prefer international sojourns that allow some work experience and facilitate social contacts in the host country
Studies confirming the benefits of international experience suggest that these positive effects depend on certain conditions being met. These include the possibility to establish social relation-ships with locals or other international students. The HR managers interviewed see contact with different cultural settings as a crucial element. The results of the present survey show a preference for sojourns from three up to six months, with those of a shorter duration seen as having less value. Given the choice between candidates who have studied or done an internship abroad, employers have a slight preference for the latter.
Conclusions and policy implications
To sum up: International mobility can facilitate the transition into the labour market. Employers consider international sojourns as potentially enhancing not only international but also general competences. In their view mobile graduates generally perform better and are more likely to shoulder those international tasks which are significant for the company’s success and which will become even more important in the future. International mobility thus enhances long-term employability. The National Agency for EU Higher Education Cooperation, a department within the DAAD, wants to encourage universities to ensure that international sojourns are of sufficient duration and to improve recognition of academic achievement abroad. Students need to be reassured that employers understand that studies involving an international sojourn may take longer. Furthermore, universities should help mobile students to better understand the positive impact of their sojourn on their competences. Employers should be encouraged to pay more attention to international experience during the recruitment process. Within their funding strategies state ministries should incentivise mobility-friendly designs of curricula, informational opportunities for students and recognition of studying abroad.