Mike Booker: The importance of language

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It was announced by Eurostat that around 26 million people in the EU were unemployed earlier this year, and that the unemployment rate was 11.9%. Due to the ample job opportunities in some countries and high unemployment in others, we are seeing people move around Europe for work now more than ever before. Despite the fact that the employment situation in the UK seems to be improving, it’s clear that many are heading abroad for work, whether deciding to pack up and move for lifestyle reasons, or seconded abroad by their existing companies. Conversely, we are seeing continued internationalisation of UK companies. With our workforce being more global than ever, language skills have never been more vital.

Earlier this year, a new scheme called Erasmus + was introduced by the European Commission, to improve skills and employability by providing education, training, work and volunteering opportunities abroad to over 4 million young people across Europe. It followed a report from the European Commission on the importance of language skills in a market where businesses increasingly operate on an international level. To parallel this, The Guardian recently launched a ‘1,000 words’ campaign, which set out to encourage and inspire people to learn 1,000 words of another language.

In Europe and the rest of the world, learning other languages has always been a key priority. Most countries need to learn English in order to be part of international trade, but unfortunately, the UK hasn’t ever really had to make the effort. In 2012, a European wide survey highlighted that less than 9% of English teenagers had more than a basic level in the language they were studying, compared to an average of 42% across the 14 countries that took part in the survey. What does this mean for us and the future of UK employment?

People employed in client facing jobs such as retail and sales should be able to address people from other countries. Burberry has Mandarin-speaking staff in all of its European flagship stores to assist tourist customers from China, where the brand is hugely popular. Those working in business, such as consulting, know that travel is a large component of their work. With the UAE becoming an increasingly important international market, business travel to Arabic speaking places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi is expected. Our workforce is more global than it has ever been, and with this comes a need to have staff that can communicate easily with others.

The benefits of encouraging people in the UK to work abroad and learn a new language are plentiful. For some time, universities have been offering students the chance to study abroad to improve their language skills. When they come back to the UK, they will bring home new skills and ways of working which open up and diversify our skill sets. Companies should be taking on those with international experience, or encouraging their current employees to work abroad whenever possible.

On an individual level, learning languages can give employees a competitive edge, as well as aiding personal development. From a wider perspective, learning about other cultures means that people will become more internationally minded and better at understanding cultural behaviour and building relationships. There is also evidence to suggest that learning a language can increase cognitive function.

The value that can be gained from taking on those with language skills and international experience is clear. But what about HR employees themselves?

The need for languages and international experience within HR has become increasingly important for the sector as more people move to the UK from abroad to work, particularly as new countries join the EU. If HR employees have the international experience themselves, they are able to see the value of it in other employees, and are able to be more open when looking at candidates. If HR employees are looking for people with language skills, it’s helpful if they have the language skills themselves in order to test candidates. They also may be more likely to push for international experience and language training within the workforce.

Language skills and cultural experience have become increasingly important for workers in all industries, from retail to HR. As the internet continues to make our world smaller, and industries more global, we must continue to develop these capabilities.

Mike Booker, Managing Director, The Network and International Director, totaljobs.com

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