It's all about character. Building a solid career in international public policy takes common sense, good judgment and leadership: qualities of character that can be hard to find, and even more difficult to build. That was the take-away from the United Nations University's discussion on "Training and Placing the Next Generation in Public Policy" held last week in New York."They are smart and career-driven, and most of their skillsets are formidable," said a headhunter for a clutch of international nonprofits complaining to the event's prestigious panel about a dearth of qualified candidates. "What I need is character and more specifically the interplay of skillsets and character, but I rarely get it."James McGann, assistant director of the international relations program at the University of Pennsylvania, acknowledged having particular difficulty instilling leadership and good sense into his students and interns. He recalled a business and international affairs student who was interviewing with Japanese businessmen. They were in a big office, sitting on couches, drinking soda."He had been incredibly effective substantively, and when they're all getting ready to leave he finishes his soda and in the middle of a discussion puts the can down on the ground and crushes it with his foot," said McGann. "Where did that come from? It's a question of judgment. The interviewer took him to the woodshed, of course. Having that judgment, understanding those decisions is something that's essential."Alan Goodman, the president and chief executive of the Institute for International Education, saw travel and study abroad as crucial. He reeled off a series of staggering statistics: 70 percent of Americans do not have a passport; less than 1 percent of Americans will ever study abroad; and the number of Americans studying a foreign language today is lower than ever."Maybe 5 percent of college students have a passport," Goodman continued. "But if we had all our students enter with a passport and we made the simple requirement that in the course of four years you used it, we would be surprised at the numbers of ways students, and faculty, find to engage in the world."John Coatsworth, president of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, pointed to a shift in opportunity."The long-term trend is the privatization of government and international affairs," said Coatsworth. "Our master's in international affairs now requires not one but two management courses, because in 2008, 40 percent of our graduates were employed in the private sector, many with consulting contractors." This represented a significant increase from five years ago.Ellen Schall, head of New York University's Robert Wagner School of Public Service – which concentrates on international development – saw a different problem."The pipeline to public service isn't clear for young people," said Schall. "We know how to make a doctor, an engineer, but if you want to do important NGO work in Africa and you're a sophomore in college, we haven't clarified enough the multiple pathways into that work. That is our collective obligation."Schall cited a couple of helpful tools at Wagner's website: "Composing Your Career" helps graduates move into the professional realm while Wagner's Fellowship for Emerging Leaders in Public Service gives young professionals a chance to assess their talents, interests and skills to better chart a career path.

About the author

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    David Lepeska

    David has served as U.N. correspondent for the newswire UPI and reported for several major newspapers, including the New York Daily News and Newsday. He was chief correspondent for the Kashmir Observer in Srinagar, India, and regularly contributes to the Economist, among other publications. Since 2007, David has reported for Devex News from Washington, New York, as well as South Asia.

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