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How to Prepare Students for a Global Economy

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At a recent virtual focus group of business leaders convened by the National Commission, Eileen Yang, senior manager of corporate citizenship at Genentech, a member of the Roche Group, outlined how school districts and businesses can mutually support each other in developing young people who are ready to work in a fast-paced global economy. We followed up with her for a personal interview, where we explored her thoughts on the impact of cross-cultural understanding on skill assessment, the importance of a skill she calls "agility," and the communication gap between schools and businesses. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

National Commission: During the focus group, you sparked a discussion on the challenges of evaluating the social and emotional skills of employees from different cultures. Can you expand on that?

Eileen Yang: Measuring these skills is very difficult because even though everyone wants to see collaboration and creative problem-solving, if you step back and ask "What does collaboration look like in Japan? In Singapore? In Switzerland?" you'll get three totally different definitions. I'm very uncomfortable going into another setting and saying, "this is not my definition of collaboration or communication," when that environment probably has its own strong definitions of what those things look like. It also depends on the individual manager, the office you sit in, and the culture you sit in.

NC: Being mindful of cultural differences, then, how should educators cultivate the social and emotional skills students need to succeed in the workplace?

EY: Instead of creating a rigid standard to enforce across K-12 and other education settings, we should instead consider teaching kids agility—how to adapt. A student's ability to think critically and learn in an agile manner supersedes any kind of technical or 21st-century mastery of any skill—including communication skills, because everywhere you go, the definition of communication and collaboration will shift. Hiring managers will say "I want someone who can figure things out and adapt to change with very minimal guidance" ... I can't think of a single hiring manager who wouldn't want that quality, regardless of the sector and technical skill.

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NC: Given the small amount of time that companies have to discern between potential hires, how can they test for an applicant's agility or ability to adapt?

EY: The question I always ask is, "Tell me about a project where you had minimal access to both resources and guidance, and walk me through each step of how you went about completing it." It helps me see whether they're a structured thinker, it tells me what circumstances they're used to and how scrappy they can be, and it shows me how much initiative they have. As a hiring manager, but also as someone who's answered that question, it has probably been the best indicator of what a person can do.

NC: Looking at the other end of the education-workforce relationship - what can businesses do more effectively support schools?

EY: There's a communication gap. When I get together with other companies, one common thread in terms of feedback is that it's not quite clear to us what people in the education sector want us to do. The key for businesses and schools is having a really crisp "ask" of each individual partner.

It's important that schools have the right contacts from each of these companies, and vice-versa. I represent corporate social responsibility at Genentech; I'm not in HR, I can't directly influence talent acquisition. I can bring those groups into the room, but they have the voices that really matter.

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