Making the Case for Intercultural Learning: Career Readiness

Mar 12, 2024
Three people at table

How can we make the case for intercultural learning? This is a question I’m often asked by educators. Of course, there are many reasons developing intercultural competence in higher education is important, and which of these you emphasize should depend on who you’re trying to get on board and what motivates them.

In this post, I’m exploring one reason—the relationship between developing intercultural competence and career readiness or employability. What follows are some of the key points I gleaned from several resources focused specifically on skills needed across industries. All the studies I cite are referenced and linked to at the end of this post.

The work world is changing dramatically, increasing the importance of “soft skills.”

Several of the reports I reviewed discussed how the world of work is undergoing drastic changes. For example, a 2016 report called Future Skills, prepared by the Institute for the Future, identifies three critical “people skills.” “Virtual collaboration” is one of the key skills within this area, due to technological advances and an increase in remote work. It’s worth noting that the report was published pre-COVID; the global pandemic has significantly accelerated the shift toward remote work.

Furthermore, as the Future Skills report points out, the very nature of work is changing: “Work is being divided into micro-tasks that call for specialists, who can be based anywhere” (p. 13). As a result, most professionals need to be able to work effectively in highly diverse, global teams, even if they never leave their home office.

In their book, Most likely to succeed: Preparing our kids for the innovation era, Wagner and Dintersmith point out that today’s students have unprecedented access to information. In such an environment, learning content becomes less important than it was for past generations. What college graduates of the 21st and 22nd century need to know is how to discern the quality of information and use it effectively to problem-solve with others.

Intercultural competence is an in-demand skill.

These shifts in the way we work heighten the importance of building skills to work effectively, appropriately, and authentically across cultural differences, whether locally or globally. This is what’s known as intercultural competence. Intercultural competence or similar is specifically identified as an important skill in several career reports.

For example, another of the “people skills” identified in the Future Skills report mentioned previously is “cross-cultural competency,” defined as “the ability to understand and then effectively perform, communicate, and engage with others in a different cultural context” (p. 8). Successful employees, the report says, will be able to identify and communicate points of connection to build relationships and work effectively within diverse teams (p. 7). The report also points out that exposure to cultural differences doesn’t necessarily lead to intercultural competence, but that it “must be learned through practice and training” (p. 8).

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) has identified eight core competencies needed for career readiness. The list originally included “Global/Intercultural Fluency.” This competency was later updated to align more closely with the definition of cultural competence and add anti-racist language (NACE, 2022). It’s now called “Equity & Inclusion,” and defined as follows: “Demonstrate the awareness, attitude, knowledge, and skills required to equitably engage and include people from different local and global cultures. Engage in anti-racist practices that actively challenge the systems, structures, and policies of racism” (NACE, 2021, p. 5).

A study conducted by Hart Research Associates (on behalf of the Association of American Colleges & Universities) found broad agreement among employers that all students, regardless of discipline or field, should gain broad learning across five different areas. One of those areas is “intercultural skills” and another is “problem solving with people who have differing views” (2015, p. 3). The study found that 96% of employers surveyed agreed (somewhat or strongly) that “all college students should have educational experiences that teach them how to solve problems with people whose views are different from their own” (2015, p. 3).

In addition, an international report by the British Council found that “employers believe that intercultural skills are integral to the workplace” (p. 9). The most valued skills employers identified in this category were “demonstrating respect for others,” followed by “working effectively in diverse teams.” These were rated slightly higher than “qualifications related to the job” and “expertise in the field.” 

Other important “soft skills” can be cultivated by developing intercultural competence

Not only is intercultural competence specifically identified in several reports on career readiness and employability, but many of the other skills listed are ones that are honed by developing one’s intercultural competence. For example, the virtual collaboration skills mentioned earlier are enhanced through intercultural competence. The Future Skills report even states, “Intercultural communication competence will likely play a large role in the success of virtual groups, since they may be more likely to have multinational members working from their home countries, and are almost certain to contain demographic diversity” (p. 14).

The third “people skill” identified in the Future Skills report is “social intelligence,” which is defined as “a keen awareness of the value of social connections, the ability to take another’s perspective, and the capacity to engage in satisfying relationships” (Zautra, Zautra, Gallardo, & Velasco, 2015 p. 2). Developing intercultural competence enhances our ability to empathize and see other perspectives, as well as develop relationships, especially across cultures.

Other important career readiness skills cited include teamwork, communication, resilience, novel and adaptive thinking, and sense-making. Developing intercultural competence can positively impact each of these skills (for information, see this blog post that discusses how developing intercultural competence prepares students for an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world).

Higher education is not meeting employer expectations.

Another theme I noticed in these reports is that employers don’t feel institutions of higher education are producing interculturally competent global citizens. According to the British Council report, over a quarter of employers rate their educational system's efforts to develop graduates with the intercultural skills they need as inadequate (in the U.S. this number is higher, at a third of employers).

Perhaps related to this issue is the fact that students tend to rate their skills in these areas much higher than employers do (Hart Research Associates, 2015; British Council, 2013). The study by Hart Research Associates found that students expressed “much greater confidence in their level of preparedness in all areas than employers indicate they see demonstrated” (p. 2), including intercultural skills.

As a Qualified Administrator of the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI)—a popular tool used to assess intercultural development—I find this last point particularly interesting. The IDI not only assesses an individual’s capacity for navigating cultural complexity, but also assesses how they perceive themselves engaging across cultures. Therefore, it could be used to help students recognize if they overestimate their intercultural competence. It also provides useful suggestions and next steps to develop their capacity.


This is just a summary of a few resources related to intercultural competence and general career-related skills. I also suggest looking to academic accrediting bodies specific to your discipline, if relevant, to help make the case for integrating intercultural learning into a particular field. Please share additional resources you know of in the comments section below.

References & Recommended Resources

British Council (2013). Culture at work: The value of intercultural skills in the workplace.

Hart Research Associates (2015), for AAC&U. Falling short? College learning and career success.

Institute for the Future (2016). Future skills: Update & literature review.

National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) Resources:

Wagner, T. & Dintersmith, T. (2015). Most likely to succeed: Preparing our kids for the innovation era. New York: Scribner.

Yngve, K.N. & Tort, J. (n.d.) Purdue GEARE Impact Report: An outcomes assessment report of student global competence development. Purdue University.

Zautra, E. K., Zautra, A. J., Gallardo, C. E., & Velasco, L. (2015). Can we learn to treat one another better? A test of a social intelligence curric­ulum. Plos ONE, 10(6), 1-17.

Photo credit: Kampus Production, Pexels

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