In a recent address to the Trans-Tasman Council, the head of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson, highlighted the importance of “close personal relationships” in bridging differences between nations and business partners.

Her address brings to sharp focus the critical role that business can, and should, play in developing a new generation of young Australians with direct experience in the Indo-Pacific and strong personal and professional networks across the region.

The New Colombo Plan has become a flagship initiative to make this ambition a reality. Set up just four years ago as a partnership between government, universities and the private-sector, it has provided around 30,000 students experience of living, studying and undertaking work experience in the Indo-Pacific region, with that number set to grow to 40,000 by the end of 2020.

It’s critical that it remains successful and continues into the future. Here’s why:

Boosting workforce competencies

Australia's ability to develop trade opportunities, promote national interests and influence business and diplomatic relationships will increasingly depend on new leadership and workforce competencies.

As a NCP Business Champion and within our firm’s own operations in Asia, I’ve seen first-hand the vital role the New Colombo Plan is playing developing the pipeline of future leaders. For an Australian lawyer working on an infrastructure project in Indonesia, technical skills are not enough. The ability to work in a cross-cultural team, to negotiate across different business cultures and to communicate clearly will often make the difference between a rail-road or logistics centre being delivered on time and on budget.

In-country experiences provided by the New Colombo Plan are giving students a chance to see things from a different perspective, to acknowledge the different ways that countries in the region think about things and operate, and to develop personal and professional relationships that can last a lifetime.

Business connections

Internships and mentorships are a hallmark of the initiative. So far over 300 businesses, institutions and other regional bodies have registered to provide internship and work experience for the scholars and other students during their time in the region, bringing a real breadth to their experience.

But it’s not just the students who benefit. The initiative is acting as a pipeline of high-calibre graduate talent. Our firm, for example, is now taking steps to integrate New Colombo Plan into its graduate recruitment plans. We see real business advantage in being able to work with universities and the NCP secretariat to build a talent recruitment program that incorporates offshore work placements as part of a structured program to provide real-life experiences in our Asian offices before students graduate.

Solving wicked problems

The increasing pace of globalisation has brought about “wicked problems” from climate change to food security that need concerted collaboration between governments, the private sector and civil societies.

It’s been inspirational to sit on the interview panel for applicants for NCP scholarships and see the passion they share to lead or play important roles in solving these problems.

The connections they make - between people, businesses and institutions – will help find solutions to the wicked problems we face, sustain economic development, and in doing support regional stability and prosperity.

Whether you are a business, a government body or a social enterprise, you would be doing yourself a disservice to overlook this cohort who are likely to become the future community, business and political leaders of this country.

Success and longevity

Without doubt, it is in Australia’s national interests to create a steady flow of Indo-Pacific literate ambassadors who, over time, will become an influential and diverse network of Australians with direct experience to empower a more regionally-aware and regionally-capable Australian workforce for the future.

It is now time for the private sector and universities to lean in and work with government to maximise the impact of the New Colombo Plan and ensure that the benefits we see now continue for generations to come.