Zabeen Hirji: There’s wider economic sense in helping young people get overseas experience

Zabeen Hirji

This op-ed was published by the Globe and Mail on March 3, 2023

Opinion piece by Zabeen Hirji

As I reflect on my rewarding career in financial services, starting as a teller at RBC and retiring 40 years later as the bank’s chief human resources officer, I realize it is my human skills that endured the test of time.

Such skills, including adaptability and critical thinking, can’t be learned from books and lectures, but I know where I got them from; Having immigrated to Canada from Tanzania as a teenager, I can attest to how being thrust into an unfamiliar place helps develop competencies quickly.

Study after study has shown that international experience not only builds the character of individuals, but it is of tangible value to employers and therefore the economy.

This is why I sit on the advisory group of Global Skills Opportunity, the Canadian government’s $95-million outbound student mobility pilot program that encourages and supports postsecondary students to study and work abroad.

Unfortunately, funding for the program is not ensured beyond 2025. I would urge the federal government to permanently fund this impactful program. Ensuring Global Skills Opportunity, and all the benefits it brings Canada, live on is crucial for a successful future for this country.

In The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Friedman wrote, “Today’s workers need to approach the workplace much like athletes preparing for the Olympics, with one difference. They have to prepare like someone who is training for the Olympics but doesn’t know what sport they are going to enter.”

In a world of unprecedented technological, social, environmental and geopolitical change, soft skills are all the more important. Canadians must adopt a growth mindset and rethink traditional education models. We need to be adaptive and flexible, open to uncertainty and able to learn quickly.

When I started my career, the half-life of technical skills was 30 years, meaning within three decades half of these skills were obsolete. Today, the half-life of technical skills is just two to five years and shrinking. On the other hand, human skills – or “soft” skills – will never become obsolete.

International experiences provide the perfect learning accelerator for these all-important human skills.

Navigating different languages, cultures and customs, making new friends, even figuring out how to take the bus or what to eat, these daily activities are all important lessons. For me, while starting over in Canada as a teenager wasn’t easy, I became more determined and resilient – other skills crucial to success in a dynamically changing world.

Leger Marketing found that 82 per cent of small to medium-sized enterprises say their company’s competitiveness is enhanced when employees have cross-cultural knowledge and an understanding of the global marketplace.

Through Global Skills Opportunity, an estimated 16,000 Canadians will participate in an international experience by 2025. A hallmark of the program is that 50 per cent of funding supports underrepresented students – specifically students with disabilities, Indigenous students and those from low-income backgrounds who have traditionally faced barriers to participating in global experiences.

So far, more than 2,500 Canadian students have benefited from the program, and 74 per cent identify as members of underrepresented groups.

I hear from Canadians who have participated that the experience has built their confidence, encouraged them to set more ambitious goals and even changed the trajectory of their lives.

“Going abroad is an experience that I will carry with me for the rest of my life,” says Chanelle Courville, an Indigenous woman and recent Trent University graduate who spent time in Mexico in 2022 as part of a Global Skills Opportunity project.

“Having the opportunity to go abroad and study among new people will forever change my level of confidence … so much so that I have applied to employment I thought was out of reach.”

I’m happy to report that Chanelle was offered both positions she applied to.

The program is working. The international opportunities funded through it are helping young, talented Canadians of all backgrounds sharpen their skills and strengthen our economy for unknown challenges ahead.

It’s concerning that long-term funding for Global Skills Opportunity is not ensured, especially in the context of growing geopolitical challenges.

There’s a lot at stake and we cannot afford to be shortsighted. Canada must continue to encourage and support more students to go abroad beyond 2025.

Zabeen Hirji is executive adviser, future of work, at Deloitte and strategic adviser to the public sector and executive-in-residence at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business. She sits on the advisory group of Global Skills Opportunity. She served for 10 years as chief human resources officer at Royal Bank of Canada.

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