From the food we eat to the technology we use, the United States’ ongoing interdependence on other nations is more apparent everyday. This interdependence has prompted other nations to expand citizen exchange as a way to promote cultural understanding and cross-pollination in business and industry. Also recognizing the value of exchange, the U.S. government and its institutions of higher education have heavily promoted study abroad to U.S. students and the U.S. has extended a hand to foreign nationals who want to learn from leading U.S. businesses. However, that should be a two-way street and we need to place more emphasis and provide even more opportunities for young Americans to learn from foreign business leaders through work-based exchanges abroad.

During President Obama’s recent tour through Asia, including his boyhood home of Indonesia, his staff noted that “President Obama, in part because of his own personal experience in Indonesia, would like to see more Indonesians studying in the U.S.” Even David Brooks argued in the NY Times last week that American’s future is at a crossroads and recommends global exchange programs as a key component of rebuilding our economy. He suggests the U.S. “make study abroad a rite of passage for college students.”

While it’s great that leaders, and even the President himself, support study abroad programs, such calls have been mostly lopsided—focusing on study for Americans and opportunities for foreign nationals to travel here for opportunities to work in U.S. business and industries. We need an equal emphasis placed on U.S. Citizens going abroad for work-based opportunities. As outbound programs for Americans are usually more geared toward short-term study experiences that give no real insight into how other countries do business, we are losing out on a real opportunity. Work-based exchange programs for Americans should not be left by the wayside. The opportunities the U.S. has afforded so many through J-1 visa intern and trainee exchange programs has provided invaluable experience to those foreign nationals. Why wouldn’t we want to ensure that Americans get the same leg up?

Echoing this point, Cheryl Matherly of the University of Tulsa, and Martin Tillman, of Johns Hopkins University, noted during a recent online chat that because employers focus particularly on practical experience when hiring, students should be sure to build upon any study abroad experience with other relevant international experience, such as internships or volunteer work.

Some in U.S. higher education circles may be surprised that global employers value practical experience over academic experience, but this advantage is old news to the thousand of international students and young career professionals who seek internships in the United States each year from abroad. Yes, education forms a solid base, but it is practical experience that tells a potential employer if a young applicant already has the real world skills to do the job. Policy makers must remember that cultural exchange is a two-way street and that Americans need work-based experiences, as well as study abroad experiences to keep our students and workers competitive in the global economy.

Photo by ToastyKen