After Brexit, will we lose our power skills?
Instead of trying to close our borders, perhaps we should try to expand our horizons and celebrate the benefits that diversity brings.
When I was 22, I left the UK to volunteer in a remote refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border. I left because I wanted to see the world, explore different cultures, make use of all the cross-cultural negotiation classes I had taken, but also because I felt there wasn’t much going for me in the UK. London offered working long hours to barely make ends meet in the hope that there was a ladder that could be climbed up slowly. In contrast, the rest of the world offered adventure, access to new ideas and different cultures, and paradoxically, better jobs.
In Thailand, I wasn’t competing with Thai people for jobs, I was only competing with a small number of expats, and that led to some interesting job opportunities. It was also a chance to gain a plethora of ‘soft skills’, such as communications, teamwork, critical thinking, problem solving and persuasive writing, as well as some of the ‘hard’ skills employers also desire; languages, practical work experience, and in-depth sector knowledge.
These soft skills are sometimes nicknamed as power skills, as they require a range of human ingenuity and can be applied to any job in any sector. Research at Google found that the top seven characteristics to succeed there are all soft skills. It seems that communication, problem-solving, empathy and the ability to portray a company’s vision are as important as specialised STEM knowledge. But how do you develop these sought-after power skills?
I found that living abroad in a foreign country and dealing with a different language, culture, and customs creates situations in which to develop soft skills. It forces you to think out of the box, since you are so far away from your normal habitat and offers opportunities for problem-solving, communication and negotiation skills.. I wasn’t the only person to notice the benefits of emigration, nor was I the only expat. In every country I visited, I found expatriates from every walk of life. A colleague and I started to source stories from around the world of young people who had moved abroad in their 20s and compiled them into an anthology to inspire more younger people to move abroad and reap the benefits. It is estimated that over 250 million people already live outside their country of birth, with this number expected to rise to 405 million by 2050 (sadly, this number is mostly made up of refugees who are either fleeing from war and dire poverty, rather than those looking to improve their lives, prospects and global awareness). Luckily, as the world becomes infinitely more integrated, these power skills are becoming easier to develop and increasingly valuable.
Fast forward to 2018, amidst the great divide of Brexit, I found myself in London, the one part of the UK that desperately wants to remain with the EU and inclusive to diversity. There are more foreign languages than English on the streets and most offices house a mixture of different nationalities and cultures. Some people came to improve their English, others for better job opportunities. Some to avoid persecution and yes, a few to enjoy our NHS (although research from UCL shows that foreigners pay more into the public pot than us Brits do, and take less out). Mayor Sadiq Khan has done an excellent job of ensuring #Londonisopen, especially since 38% of Londoners are expats (or migrants depending on what term you want to use). Foreigners make up a large part of the workforce that is driving London forward. They bring culture, cuisine, ideas, help promote diversity and allow us to develop power skills right on our doorsteps. Through all of this, they help drive innovation by bringing different perspectives and offer us a healthy dose of competition.
London is one of the hardest places to live; high rents and cost of living, global competition, accented English at every corner, less than perfect weather, and despite all this, foreigners move here and try their absolute hardest to make it. Compared to other countries, Brits don’t go abroad as much, despite it bringing ‘huge benefits, at relatively little cost’. If we are lagging behind on overseas experience, we are lucky enough to find abundant diversity in our capital.
In a bid to remain competitive and offer cross-cultural experiences, Newcastle University has taken matters into their own hands and invested £1 million towards ensuring students still undergo European Erasmus exchanges in 2019–20. By studying or working in a multicultural environment every day, we are unconsciously boosting our power skills. Research on MBA students shows that multicultural engagement can predict greater work success in the future. Diversity is good for our students.
Even at the highest levels of industry, we must work harder than ever to educate and develop ourselves, as the talent pool of a globalised world is much bigger. Some of the worlds greatest cities have been built off the back of foreign labour, and from New York to Dubai and London, we need to start celebrating their input. Despite Brexit people will continue to move for work opportunities, now going elsewhere in Europe. If we think we are losing our jobs to foreigners, perhaps it is time for us to look at what skills we offer employers and how hard we are working, rather than playing the blame game. Can we really compete if we lose our diversity? Or will we end up like Japan; debt-ridden and working 80+ hours a week just to keep our island afloat. Instead of trying to close our borders, perhaps we should try to expand our horizons.