The following is a guest post by Gilles Bousquet, the dean of the Division of International Studies and vice provost for globalization at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He is also chair of the Statewide International Education Council and co-chair of the University of Wisconsin System Task Force on Economic Development and Globalization.
At a roundtable discussion last spring in Milwaukee hosted by the Wisconsin International Education Council, the vice president of global human resources at Johnson Controls told educators: “Our talent development and acquisition activities across the organization are the most critical factors for us as a company to grow and to thrive. So, it is all about people.”
At a series of meetings I had with business officials in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai in November, executives at several American companies – including giants like 3M and Caterpillar in addition to up-and-coming ones like Madison-based Promega and TrafficCast – vigorously repeated that same message. I heard it again more recently in Chicago, during a meeting with GE’s health-care unit, which recently moved the headquarters of its 115-year-old X-ray division from Waukesha, Wis., to Beijing to tap into the economic growth in China.
These are among the many American companies riding today’s powerful wave of global growth—a wave that is particularly pronounced in such emerging markets as Brazil, China, and India. I found it quite telling that two of the fast-growing, high-tech companies I met are opening major R&D centers close to leading education and research institutions in Shanghai. And, as one senior executive said, for large companies, “Talent is the issue.”
The message for educators in the United States is unambiguous: If we don’t take care of this urgent, growing demand for global talent, decisively and creatively, we will undermine our capacity to support the growth of our own companies on this side of the Pacific. At the same time, the graduates we produce will face a greater risk of being bypassed by the tremendous transformation occurring before our eyes.
Businesses and other organizations, meanwhile, need to recognize universities as “people-rich communities.” Top-tier institutions like the University of Wisconsin at Madison attract the best and brightest young minds from their respective states, across the nation, and around the world. Talented individuals come here seeking to grow and flourish in an ideas-rich environment, to be nurtured by master teachers and discoverers who have dedicated their professional lives to the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge.
Over the past two decades, American universities have made great strides toward internationalizing their campuses—sending more students abroad, hosting growing numbers of international students, and establishing programs focused on core global issues. While impressive, too much of this progress has been contained on campuses and conceived in academic terms.
With talent as the critical issue facing both local and global organizations, those of us in higher education are forced to look beyond our campuses, because the employability of our graduates is at stake, as well as the capacity of these organizations to grow and create those jobs we hear about.
At UW–Madison, this reflection has led to a new emphasis on developing international internships – including research internships – and strengthening partnerships with corporations, nonprofits, and government agencies. We have made progress, including successful internships with Johnson Controls, Caterpillar, Abbott Labs, and Plexus, as well as the U.S.-China Environmental Fund, a nongovernmental organization.
Through our conversations with these partners, we are discovering the depth of the challenges around talent development, along with a disconnect between universities and the companies, organizations, and public agencies under pressure to recruit top-notch people.
Closing the gap requires new kinds of bridges to link these divergent cultures. We must build sophisticated ways to promote a dynamic collaboration among those who urgently need talent and the institutions that educate our best and brightest minds.
Constructing such bridges will require some work to identify common language and mutual understandings.
Questions that need to be asked include:
• How do various types of organizations conceive of their global talent needs?
• How do we think about the knowledge, skills, abilities, and experiences that enable our graduates as professionals, innovators, and leaders to thrive in a global and multicultural, multilingual world? How do we document and assess these?
• What can we learn from scholarly research and from what consultants are advising their clients?
• Who should our contacts be in these organizations, and at what levels, to ensure the broadest possible picture and the best traction for long-term collaborations?
• Where are the key opportunities for academe and talent-hungry organizations to most productively engage?
• How do we incorporate the fact that universities and organizations increasingly can converse at home and in such diverse, far-away places as Shanghai, Istanbul, Bangalore, Sao Paulo, or Dar es Salaam? How does this new geography of needs and talent play out in our relationships?
Those involved will need to come to an understanding that this is not about “finding a job.” Instead, it involves understanding the skills, knowledge, experiences, creativity, and mindset necessary to prepare our students to be the talent that these organizations are seeking. Such understandings need to start far upstream and have many points of dialogue with organizations.
As people-rich environments, institutions of higher education need to think and act as “talent incubators.” This requires an entirely new outlook, but one that will benefit both our students and help meet the challenges society faces in an innovative way, which is, after all, the mission of higher education.