Hopeful that the explosion of international trade will generate job opportunities, an unprecedented number of students and workers are seeking careers in multinational business.
The logic, especially in California, is compelling. An estimated 10% to 15% of California's economy--representing about 1.5 million jobs--is tied to international commerce, said Stephen Levy, the economist who heads the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto.
And trade is one of the fastest growing sectors of the state's otherwise stagnant economy. The value of all international trade into and out of California climbed fourfold from 1979 through 1992, to $192.4 billion, according to the California World Trade Commission. Exports of goods produced in California doubled in five years, to $68 billion in 1992 from $34 billion in 1987.
"Products made in the United States are very competitive in price and quality today," explained Richard Drobnick, director of the International Business Education & Research Program at USC's Graduate School of Business Administration. And with the U.S. economy recovering very slowly, he added, companies are saying "go over there and sell it overseas because you're not selling it in Alabama."
After all, globalization is one of the great business trends of the 1990s.
"This has happened pre-NAFTA," Drobnick said. With approval last year of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a renegotiated General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and an emerging Pacific trade zone, the volume of international commerce and its importance to both the U.S. and California economies are expected to expand.
The prospect that business globalization will generate new and better jobs draws business people such as Peter Guyer to programs like Drobnick's.
After graduating from Pomona College in international relations, Guyer, 32, had worked in Bangkok and at American import-export firms for 10 years before returning to USC for his MBA degree.
This was his calculus: "American companies in general are awakening to the fact that they must operate in an international arena. That's a given if they want to grow and be successful."
Already equipped with overseas experience and language skills--he speaks Japanese and is studying Korean--Guyer figured the USC program's internationally oriented MBA would give him "the tools to build my career and operate in this environment."
Growing numbers of USC business students are making similar choices. Drobnick says courses that include trips to Japan and Europe are oversubscribed. Enrollment is up dramatically in non-credit, evening language classes. A new "Dean's International Fellows Program" includes study and internships abroad.
Guyer's investment in an international MBA paid off. He's now manager for the Asia Pacific area at Nestle Foreign Trade Co. in Glendale, figuring out how to sell Quik, Nestea and other U.S.-produced Nestle products in South Korea, Japan, China and other Asian nations.
"I understood that a company like Nestle--a very global company--would be able to use my skills, both in my current job and in future jobs," said Guyer, who anticipates a career with many overseas stops.
Dutch-owned Nestle may not typify American companies when it comes to global-mindedness, however.
For all their talk of needing "global managers," international awareness remains an afterthought for many U.S. companies, and some of their most worldly workers are demoralized victims of an "Americentric" glass ceiling.
"There's a tremendous amount of lip service--and very little action to back up any part of it," said Hal B. Gregersen, a professor of organizational behavior at Brigham Young University and co-author of "Global Assignments," a book about working overseas.
Research by Gregersen and his colleagues shows that fewer than 5% of big U.S. companies consider an employee's international experience in making overseas assignments, instead looking for workers with the technical expertise to solve immediate problems.
"It's basically a fire drill," he says: "We have a problem now in Kuala Lumpur or wherever it may be. Who's going to put out that fire as quickly as they can?"
It is only after they land abroad that many of these workers realize how little they know about the culture of the country where they are supposed to be solving problems or how big a handicap the lack of language skills can be.
Meanwhile, their careers often slide into out-of-sight, out-of-mind limbo, Gregersen said. In one study he helped conduct, half of the senior-level executives who returned home--whether to a U.S., Japanese or European firm--after assignments abroad had no idea what their next job in the company would be. Half were demoted.
For now, many who see international opportunities in their future will have to work on faith.
That's what Mark Huffman, 34, did when he left USC's international program last August to take an unpaid internship at the U.S. Foreign Commercial Service office in Sydney, Australia.
Like Guyer, Huffman had overseas experience--a decade with Nixdorf computers in Germany and Asia. With a computer science degree from UC Santa Cruz, he had the technical skills. And he had connections: He met the chief U.S. commercial officer in Sydney at a USC conference, leading to the internship, which has turned into a paid job doing market research work for the Commerce Department while he secures an Australian work permit.
But Huffman still hasn't landed the management or technical consulting job he wants, which has led him lately to compare his life and career to those of former classmates who followed more conventional paths.
"I've had a lot more experiences than any of these people," he muses. "They have condos, real nice cars. A lot of them are married and have children. . . . You begin wondering: What are the real trade-offs? That's the issue I'm wrestling with right now."