The employees American hiring managers need for the knowledge-based jobs of the 21st century lack the professional skills to help them compete globally. The American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) warned of a skills gap in 2010: a point where organizations’ demand for crucial skills and current or prospective employees’ lack of readiness to provide them would impair innovation and growth. For many U.S. industries, that point has been reached, and they risk losing business to overseas competitors.
ASTD’s white paper “Bridging the Skills Gap: New Factors Compound the Growing Skills Shortage,” published in February 2010, states that 79 percent of surveyed organizations confirmed they had a skills gap. The report identified two underlying causes: the changing nature of work itself and workers’ educational attainment lagging employers’ skill demands.
In the report, ASTD describes how knowledge work — transaction-based labor reliant upon worker judgment and innovation — has become economically vital because of its strong contribution to a business’ bottom line. “Companies with high numbers of knowledge workers are among the fastest growing in the economy,” it states, citing U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predictions of growth for knowledge work requiring specialized skills, as well as a National Center for Education Statistics projection of higher demand for postsecondary degrees of all types.
This research reflects rising demand for skilled laborers; by 2015, the percentage of jobs requiring highly skilled workers is projected to rise to 75 percent, versus 50 percent in 1991. Industries requiring science, technology, engineering or math skills will have the highest demand for such skilled workers, and “60 percent of new jobs will require skills held by 20 percent of the population.”
Whether through targeted hiring efforts to add needed skill sets, or company-wide learning and development for existing employees, U.S. industries will rely on education to close their skills gaps. Among the skills employers seek most is non-English language proficiency.
Overseas Business Requires Language Skills
As international markets become more important to American businesses, and overseas corporations partner more closely with them, foreign language fluency will be a key skill.
As part of ongoing research into disparities between workers’ skills and employers’ needs for particular proficiencies, the University of Phoenix Research Institute (UPRI) scrutinized U.S. workers’ ability to conduct business in four non-English languages of interest to employers. To better understand their perceived importance, in late 2010 researchers surveyed nearly 1,000 U.S. workers and employers from corporate, education, government/public/nonprofit, health care and manufacturing companies. Responses revealed that while managers consider language skills important to organizational success, workers reported extremely low levels of proficiency in languages of interest.
America risks falling behind other industrial powers in language proficiency. A 2011 CBS News story reported that more than 200 million Chinese students are studying English; by contrast, only 50,000 U.S. students are learning Chinese. Overall, the report said, only 9 percent of Americans speak a foreign language, versus 44 percent of Europeans.
The UPRI’s findings indicate the vast majority — 92 percent — of workers reported English fluency, but only 3 percent described Spanish proficiency, and fewer than 1 percent spoke Arabic, Chinese or Russian, respectively (Figure 1). The likelihood that employees would learn these languages in the next 10 years was also low (Figure 2). Fifty-nine percent reported little or no likelihood of learning Spanish, 80 percent reported being somewhat or highly unlikely to become fluent enough to conduct business in Chinese, and 82 percent cited becoming proficient in Arabic or Russian as a low priority. These levels fell considerably short of employers’ need for language-equipped workers, as measured in the same survey.
Breaking down worker and employer survey responses demonstrates how businesses’ perceived language needs vary by industry. In the UPRI study, workers from all sectors reported low fluency in Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Spanish. However, employers in different industries had varying requirements for these languages. For example, corporate and manufacturing employers reported the highest current demand for Russian proficiency, whereas future demand for Russian was highest in the corporate and health care sectors. Current and future worker Spanish fluency, by contrast, was most sought by health care and education managers; Arabic was most desirable for corporate and education employers, and Chinese was most important to corporate and manufacturing companies. (Figure 3)
Few learning programs offer models for chief learning officers to broaden language fluency in their organizations, but Intel is one longtime practitioner of language instruction. Workforce Management noted in 2005 that the chip maker had been offering in-house learning in Mandarin Chinese, Japanese and Spanish for 20 years to erase cultural gaps among international employee teams. Although only a small percentage of the Intel workforce had undergone learning at that time, the company reported positive results for the investment — about $300 per employee — and it continues to provide financial assistance for language learners.
The UPRI study offers several recommendations for CLOs addressing language shortages:
Explain the value of language skills. The low rates of worker fluency and interest in learning new languages reported in the survey may indicate that workers are unaware of the benefits of knowing a second language. To counter this deficit, launch an awareness program. For example, by designating language fluency as a prerequisite for promotion, learning leaders can overcome resistance to acquiring language skills.
Publicize industry-sector language needs. Job seekers also may not recognize that a specific industry needs speakers of particular languages. Mention desired proficiencies, tuition reimbursement and in-house language learning options in job postings. Urge departmental leaders to describe the industry’s unique language needs to raise consciousness of the skills gap.
Engage workers with military backgrounds. Responses from employees who were active-duty or reserve uniformed personnel, or who had been honorably discharged, revealed that these workers were more likely to acquire business-level skill in languages of interest. The UPRI study states that the U.S. Department of Defense has been investing in language learning, including Arabic and Chinese, via its Defense Language Institute.
Poll employees with military experience to gauge their interest in learning a new language. Bilingual veterans can become change leaders to help new students speak more conversationally, and can transmit the cultural and linguistic nuances they absorbed abroad. For instance, while employees may learn Modern Standard Arabic in class, dialects vary considerably even between neighboring Arab countries.
Build benchmarks and incentives. Workplace-sponsored language learning can require a multiyear commitment from the company and from learners themselves. Consult with department heads to determine the level of fluency that will best complement the organization’s plans for newly language-equipped employees. Set achievement goals to keep learners focused, and designate metrics to gather evidence that workers are using new skills. Consider providing financial incentives for employees to complete learning milestones, which can improve their commitment to class completion, improve retention and boost a company’s reputation for supporting lifelong learning of career-relevant skills.
Partner with education leaders. Higher-education leaders can help champion greater workplace language proficiency. With employers declaring their need for Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Spanish speakers, educators may find it easier to push continued foreign-language studies through postsecondary education, whether immediately following high school or mid-career. Industry stakeholders can collaborate with heads of university language departments and independent language-study organizations to acquaint them with the particular linguistic needs of their business sector.
Data is already available to guide educational and organizational leaders in this quest. The Modern Language Association’s 2009 survey of non-English higher education language enrollment lists Spanish, French, German, Italian and Japanese as the top five spoken languages being studied. Pertinent to the UPRI study, combined enrollment in Chinese, Arabic and Russian courses was about one seventh that of Spanish.
Greet the future in a new language. In 2010, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called international education and the trend to learn languages in school the “currency of the 21st century.” Referring to reliance on English as a global business standard as a “disadvantage,” he said that “in this interconnected world, our country risks being disconnected from the contributions of other countries and cultures. Through education and exchange, we can become better collaborators and competitors in this global economy.”
Whether by raising language requirements for college graduation, promoting proficiency to job seekers as a desired workplace competency, or advocating broader workplace instruction, increased language preparedness will help hiring managers overcome the skills gap and position American companies to succeed in the multilingual marketplace.
James M. Fraleigh is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.