Robert Lane Greene talks with students

Robert Lane Greene (center) talks with students during the conference on global competitiveness.

Conference prepares students to compete on global scale

It was hard enough when college graduates entering the job market had to compete with all the other bright young Americans, but today they must also compete with bright young people from around the world. How should they prepare themselves to function in the global marketplace, and how can they make themselves stand out from the others, who are also very well prepared?

That was the question discussed Jan. 19 at a conference on global competitiveness titled “Creating Your Value-Add.” Led by BGSU’s Students Initiative on Global Competitiveness, the day featured prominent national and international speakers, including Yusuf Omar, consul general for the South African Consulate-General in Chicago; Dr. Henry Silvert, a research associate and statistician for the Conference Board, and Sonja Steptoe, senior correspondent and deputy news director for Time magazine in Los Angeles, whose article “How to Build a Student for the 21st Century” was Time’s Dec. 18 cover story.

Jake Gallardo, Sonja Steptoe and Dr. Donald Nieman
Jake Gallardo (center), a senior international studies major and one of the conference organizers, talks with Time magazine journalist Sonja Steptoe (left) and Dr. Donald Nieman, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, at the conference luncheon.

In addition to their talks, the guests interacted with students throughout the day, offering guidance and support.

High demand, short supply
Valuable advice was offered by the day’s keynote speaker, Robert Lane Greene, global agenda correspondent for the online version of The Economist—“the nerdiest magazine but the one you get in first class,” as he described it. Greene is also an adjunct professor of global affairs at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and has written for a number of other publications.

“Prepare yourself for luck,” he told attendees. That way, when an opportunity arises, you will be ready to take it. And, though it seems a bit cold, “See yourself as a tool, since you will be bought and sold as a commodity in the market for labor.”

“How can you add value to yourself?” Greene asked. The key to creating a unique and satisfying career, he asserted, lies in the most basic theory of supply and demand. The average person thinks only about what is in demand when preparing for a career, but the second, equally important piece is supply. What is in high demand but very short supply?

Study foreign languages
“In the global field, studying and mastering a foreign language is the essential sign of a person who is serious about global competition,” according to Greene. “It will open doors that nothing else will open.”

In any business negotiation, the advantage is to the person who knows what you’re saying and has read the same books and studied the same material. Knowing another language is an indispensable tool in the global economy, he stressed.

Robert Lane Greene
Robert Lane Greene

The speaker of several languages and now studying Arabic, Greene said, “No person of normal intelligence cannot master a foreign language,” though it is very challenging.

But what language to study? Again, the law of supply and demand can be a guide. While Spanish is widely spoken, even in the United States, it is in plentiful supply, he pointed out. And, despite India’s growing economic prominence, most people from India speak English.

A more promising possibility is Portuguese, which is much more rarely spoken outside Portugal and Brazil. “With Brazil taking up half the land mass of South America and half its population,” and with its huge resources of oil and other forms of wealth and a government newly open to trade, “it will grow increasingly important to be able to speak the language,” Greene said.

Another progressively more important language to study is Chinese, he said. China is becoming an economic powerhouse and taking its place among the world’s leading business forces, but “we don’t have the skills to meet the Chinese,” Greene said. Studying Mandarin now fits the mantra of high demand, low supply.

In the past five years, speakers of Arabic have become very important, he said, pointing out that, even today, there are only six fluent Arabic speakers at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad—“the largest embassy in the world, in a country of 26 million people, and there are only six people there who can speak Arabic.” Another example of the country’s unpreparedness to deal with international issues occurred during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, when there were no Farsi speakers on the U.S negotiating team.

Today, “written standard Arabic is a very handy thing to have in your toolkit,” he observed.

Have a second skill
In order to stand out from the rest, Greene advised students to combine study in two or more areas in which they have an interest or affinity.

For example, he said, interests in the law and computing could add up to expertise in intellectual property law. Writing and photography skills could land one a job as a photojournalist, one who is much more valuable to an editor because of the dual abilities. A degree in a science such as microbiology, chemistry or particle physics, combined with business ability, could yield a career in biotechnology.

The list goes on, he said, but the key is to think about “what makes you different, what you know that makes you unique. Focus on those things, expand them and specialize.

“Find your passions, develop them and never stop,” he said.

January 29, 2007