A Publication of WTVP

Central Illinois companies, like countless others throughout the United States, are going global. Caterpillar, Inc. certainly comes to mind first as a global enterprise with sales offices and subsidiaries around the world. Business in China is the most recent example of CAT’s reach into many economies. Likewise, Peoria has become a valid option for manufacturers who are expanding at the global level. What better example than Globe Energy, a British firm that is establishing a plant which will manufacture heating efficiency equipment in Peoria? This is currently the company’s only American location. Globe Energy is out to hire 600 people to work in manufacturing and management areas.

These two businesses are examples of a vast economic expanse of global activity, both locally and nationally. They require people who have some understanding of global business, whether in executive leadership, management or on the plant floor. Companies now receive goods and services from many countries. We’ve moved from international business in the 1960s and ‘70s, to multinational business in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, to global business today. Even small companies and entrepreneurs can serve, sell and ship on a global platform, but a company has to know how to be global.

One key element to effective global business is a workforce that can prepare for and adapt to global business demands. Sadly, students are graduating from high school, and even college, with a lack of educational preparation for global-level work. Many students graduate without fluency, or even practice, in a foreign language. After all, doesn’t everyone speak English? This assumption, of course, is grossly incorrect. Students also have little preparation in history and social studies. So much basic, factual information about global history and different cultures has never been mastered by—or received from—teachers.

And that puts American business at a disadvantage. Workers at every level have so much to learn after missed opportunities during high school and college. “I absolutely agree that students should be working more than they are on math and science,” said Angela Weck, international studies professor at Bradley University and executive director of the Peoria Area World Affairs Council. “However, they need those subjects in addition to, not in place of, social studies. Any [social studies] classes have disappeared, beyond essential American history and basic world history. International economics, which seems terribly obvious as a good course in the global economy, is usually not even considered.”

Tim Turner, who is the cultural geography teacher at Limestone Community High School, firmly agrees with Weck. “Most students lack exposure to both cultural and economic issues at the high school level, let alone at college.” He says that students going into international business need to master an alphabet soup of international programs and policies that influence the American economy: MFN status and its link to human rights violations, IMF, WTO, G8, trade agreements like NAFTA, the EU, currency and exchange rates, strong vs. weak dollar, tariffs and free trade, comparative advantage, and trade deficits and surpluses.

Students need basic training in world cultures and foreign languages to be literate of and prepared to work in a global economy and environment. Turner believes that “students need instruction on the individual cultures with which they intend to do business.” Rolf Silvertsen, principal at Midland High School in Varna, amplifies Turner’s point. In a recent Peoria Journal Star opinion piece, he called for several radical changes in educational method and practice, including a global focus. “Bring the world into schools,” he urged. “Create schools that provide a curriculum that includes global awareness, international financial and civic literacy, critical languages and critical thinking skills.”

We have to move far beyond basic skills in the English language and in math—or we will continue to fall behind nations such as Japan, China, India, Russia and Nigeria, all of which send émigrés to the United States on temporary visas to work for companies like Caterpillar and Komatsu, for example, in the greater Peoria area. Some of the disciplines necessary for global manufacturing, such as engineering, are in short supply among American graduates. Silvertsen says that American schools have lost preeminence in math and science. “Every year China graduates 700,000 engineers, and India graduates 400,000. The United States graduates 72,000—half of whom are foreign born.”

Knowledge and literacy of other countries and the international economic system might be a tall order in many American public schools, where students might not even be at the expected reading level for their age. Even more can be said about an understanding of economics. Tim Turner observed that high school students are not required to take international studies or economics, and only a small percentage take both. “As a result,” he said, “an American businessman might not realize that physical contact in most Asian cultures is frowned upon, and try to shake hands. Language programs have been on the chopping block due to cuts in education funding. American education today is more about testing than teaching.”

Central Illinois students, like their peers throughout the United States, are required to acquire just enough to learn some skills and practices for work at a business or on a computer. They are not mandated to learn how to participate in the global economy. It is at this point that our educational system at the high school and college levels must adapt or change. Otherwise, as Rolf Silvertsen says, we have every likelihood of falling further in the competitive international economy. For this shortfall, we have only ourselves to blame.

Angela Weck has a distressing view of the average high school and its students. “I am not sure what the solution is to this problem. I can get on my soapbox and point to too many sports, too much video gaming, not enough time management around a summer or weekend job, grade inflation, etc. But the reality is that students seem to be doing less with their school time, and teachers seem to be rewarding mediocrity more willingly.”

Next month: What steps are high schools taking to address the shortfalls in curriculum? What are central Illinois businesses doing to help students prepare for the global economy? What are some next steps? IBI

Dr. John Throop is a Peoria-based management consultant with international experience and is president of The Summit Consulting Group, Inc. He writes regularly for InterBusiness Issues.