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The importance of international competencies for senior vocational education students

Which competencies do newly graduated senior secondary vocational education students need to enter the job market?
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Employees from three companies share what they think is important.
4 minutes

The Netherlands is not a large country, but it is an important player in the European and global market. There are 15,000 foreign companies operating in our country, representing an impressive 1.4 million full-time jobs. Every graduate in the Netherlands enters an international job market. And once they are in this job market, employers expect them to have the skills to deal with international influences.

Sensitivity to cultural differences

Demian Hakkaart is this kind of employer. He is a business development manager at Medisafe, a company that imports and manufactures safety products and works extensively with foreign suppliers. For Hakkaart, it is very important that students start developing international skills whilst they are still in school. For example: learning to handle cultural differences. “You have to be able to adapt. For example, if you are doing business with a supplier from Asia, you can't ask three times whether the supplier is willing to lower the price. That can be considered disrespectful, and you have instantly lost an important contact.”

You can cultivate sensitivity to these types of differences, Hakkaart says. “It's logical that students don't automatically know what inter-cultural situations look like in real life; what matters is that they are willing to learn, be open to new cultures and adapt accordingly.” You simply cannot get around cultural differences, he emphasises.

The number of international employees will only increase in the years ahead. “After all, the number of international students is also growing. Some of these students will be your colleagues. We have just one world; borders are gradually becoming less significant.”

Angry French colleague

Edward Burgers, head of global procurement and facility management at the international software company Exact, also thinks it is important for senior secondary vocational education students to be open to different nationalities. Smiling, Burgers recalls the early days of his career. “I had been to France on holiday plenty of times, so I figured I knew something about French culture. Then I got a French colleague who worked in France. Without any warning, I was unable to reach him for three weeks; not by email, not by phone. When I called his superior to see if everything was okay, the boss said: ‘No. He's mad at you.’” Burgers had no idea that he had apparently offended his colleague. “In the Netherlands, you simply say what you think, and you assume others will appreciate that you are open and honest. But this Frenchman with a certain status in his company most certainly did not want to be told by some kid in the Netherlands how he was supposed to do his job.”

"It is important for you as a student to have the courage to ask someone what they mean."

Burgers' colleague Aradna Sewgolam responds to his example with the following: “In order to avoid these types of misunderstandings, it is important for you as a student to have the courage to ask someone what they mean. At our company, it's very important that you understand why international customers or suppliers respond in a certain way; that you know it's part of their culture. You must have the courage to respond to that – and to anticipate it. It starts with the question: ‘What do you actually mean?’”

She has a simple tip for working with colleagues from other cultures: know when they have a holiday. “We have a CEO who regularly sends us an email: today in Malaysia it's this holiday, or today is a Jewish holiday. These basic facts expand your awareness of other cultures.”

South America on the line

The prospect of calling international contacts may be daunting at first, but it is important. Corné van der Klundert is the managing director at Origin Fruit Direct, a company that imports fruit from places including South Africa, South America and India, with affiliated companies in China, South America and South Africa. “You have to enjoy picking up the phone and ringing someone in South Africa, England or South America. You need to be comfortable doing that.”

In other words, the list of international competencies must include knowledge of languages. Especially knowledge of English. Van der Klundert: “You need to have a reasonable command of English. It certainly doesn't have to be perfect from day one, but the foundation has to be in place; otherwise, you can't work for us.”

Hakkaart likewise encourages students to achieve fluency in English. “In addition to English, there are quite a few other languages gaining ground, such as German and Chinese. Certainly in international trade.” Burgers agrees: “It's very nice if you are fluent in a third or fourth language in addition to Dutch and English.”

Technology is changing rapidly. More and more processes in business operations are computerised. People are used to being able to do many things digitally, and spend a lot of time on their phone. Social skills are becoming more important because of this, according to Sewgolam: “We are living in 2018. Everything is changing. Senior secondary vocational education students really have to ask themselves: what can I do differently in order to get the right job here? It is important that you know how you can move along with the company.”


Internationalisation at Home

The employers agree: international skills will become even more important in the coming years. They argue in favour of programmes and schools preparing students for an international job market. Although it is valuable if a brand-new employee has done a work placement or has worked abroad, it is not essential.

Internationalisation at Home allows students to acquire international skills in their native country. For example, by working online with students at a European partner school. Burgers: “Working with people abroad will greatly benefit you in the future.” Sewgolam: “For example, we have a lot of contact with Malaysia, even though I've never been there.” You can find various examples of Internationalisation at Home online at the website of Nuffic.