What do international graduates need to compete locally?

The number of people from non-English-speaking countries moving to English-speaking countries for study continues to boom.

In 2018, Australia received approximately 600,000 international students from more than 190 (mainly Asian) countries – an increase of 54% over the past five years.

No doubt, Australia is receiving huge benefits through exporting education (approximately AU$32.2 billion or US$22 billion in 2018) and is on the way to breaking the record for international education growth – international education grew by 14% in 2018 which elevates Australia from the third-largest exporter of education to the second-largest in 2019.

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Although many international students think obtaining a degree at a Western institution will enhance their employment opportunities, they also face severe employment challenges, partially due to this rapid growth. The local labour market has become so competitive that even a degree from a top university can no longer guarantee employment outcomes.

Recent research has found that to secure employment, international students need to develop a wide range of resources, with their qualification being just one element. Among these resources, international students should be aware of the following essentials.

Hard currencies

Hard currencies relate to content knowledge, skills and experience gained from university. This knowledge and these skills are easy to measure, observe and quantify. The labour market has become significantly more competitive and graduates with a university degree or equivalent have been given better job opportunities.

Therefore, although the usefulness of qualifications can vary depending on the discipline and types of job, international students must still invest in completing their higher education degree.

Soft currencies

Soft currencies refer to interpersonal skills that require time to build and develop, both inside and outside the official curriculum. The most commonly reported soft skills highly expected by employers are: communication, teamwork, organising, problem-solving, self-management, critical thinking and initiative.

Among these soft skills, communication skills emerge as the most important. They have been found to be the factor most heavily influencing access to work for international students.

It is noted that international students are expected to improve various aspects of their communication skills beyond just oral language communication alone. That includes normal speaking and writing skills, but also the capacity to speak and write in a suitable context and the ability to use culturally appropriate language.

When applying for a job, the whole application process often assesses these skills and capacities through various steps, ranging from direct/indirect and formal/informal methods.

Hands-on experience

These practical and applicable experiences are gained through a range of activities, including participation in conducting projects and doing volunteer and part-time work. These opportunities enable international students to practise and enhance their real-world skills.

Educational institutions are increasingly emphasising the embedding of such practical knowledge and skills in curricula because they have been demonstrated to deliver positive impacts with regard to the employment outcomes of graduates.

Personal qualities and resources

These include social networks and a cultural understanding of local industries, as well as personal traits like resilience, perseverance, responsibility, a sense of humour and professionalism.

In our recent study, we found evidence that social networks could enable international students to obtain unadvertised opportunities to step into the labour market, such as part-time and temporary work.

Unfortunately, international students often underappreciate and insufficiently invest in building social networks (for example, they are not proactive in reaching out to local people, often have a close attachment to co- or similar-ethnic communities and emphasise academic performance over socialisation).

To expand their social networks, we suggest the following key relationships that international students should develop over the course of their studies:

  • • Relationships with academics and professionals at their institution. These stakeholders can help connect them to potential employers as referees and introductory people as well as broker significant knowledge about job openings and what may be required to negotiate them. This enables them to socialise the hard currencies gained from formal study and improve their job market opportunities.

  • • Connections with people they establish through internships or placement (for example, placement hosts, professionals and mentors). These people can help enlarge graduates’ social networks and help them to obtain better insights into the working culture.

  • • Mentorship through alumni. Previous graduates can provide tips that are not taught in any curriculum. International students should therefore look for such mentorship from their own networks or their institutions’ services.

Understanding the local market is also an important element that could make them attractive to employers. International students need to obtain insights about local industries and seek tips to develop personal traits that fit their preferences – for instance, about what they should wear and their body language.

Limited cultural understanding has often led to difficulties in interpreting the cultural script or constitution of a workplace, understanding desired behavioural dispositions and competences, uncovering acceptable topics in daily conversation and using appropriate language.

Some industries even have hidden policies that give priority to local people with local qualifications. Without good insight about such policies, international students may pursue a degree with low prospects and end up failing to secure employment no matter how well they perform academically.

Career plan

Qualifications are no longer the only determinant in graduate employability. Thus international students need to have a clear career plan as early as possible. Such a plan would enable them to develop effective strategies to enrich their personal qualities and resources.

We found that career plans could influence motivation and the strategies used by international students to improve their English proficiency and socialise. Those with a clear and early career plan have a better chance to succeed in negotiating their employability because their well-established resources give them extra credit, making them stand out in the crowd and then win the battle for employment.

Diverse perspectives

Although international education is a big business in English-speaking countries, the employment outcomes of international graduates is still alarmingly poor.

In Australia, 18.5% of local recruiters hired international graduates in 2013 which slowly climbed to 34% after five years.

Such a low recruitment rate is an economic and academic loss, as lots of evidence supports the benefits international graduates can bring to local businesses. These include fresh and diverse perspectives, creativity, innovation and risk-taking – values that contribute to a business thriving.

To better support international students for employment, simply launching policies to support them to apply for a visa and permanent residency does not really help, given that permanent residency does not guarantee employment. Educational institutions and industries need to collaborate to support the education-to-work transitions of international graduates better.

Many local industries have been found to have high expectations and ‘perception of fit’ that prioritise people with local knowledge and local culture and bias them against international students. The local workforce needs improved transparency, and in return, international students also need to be more realistic when looking for their immediate employment.

Many have tended to target large-tier and high-profile organisations to earn generous salaries so that they can quickly pay off tuition fees. This has very often led to disappointing outcomes and may demotivate them in their search for long-term employment. Our research findings suggest that, to improve employment outcomes and future careers, international students need to align their career plans with other factors and criteria.

Thanh Pham is based at the Faculty of Education, Monash University, Australia, and Chris Thompson is based at the Faculty of Science at Monash University.