From education to employment

CILT Director exclusive monthly column for FE News

Commentators on this summer’s GCSE figures for languages pinned the blame for the decline on employers. If languages were genuinely sought after in the workplace, so went the argument, teenagers would have more incentive to include them in their GCSE choices.

It is clear that the needs of employers are increasingly becoming a factor across the whole 14-19 curriculum but, in the difficult transition languages has been making from a compulsory subject to an optional one, what role can employers realistically be expected to play?

The question hangs on whether UK employers really do undervalue language skills and if they do, what more could they do to influence student option choices – bearing in mind the myriad other factors which also affect take up.

Employers, of course are not a homogenous group. In terms of awareness of language issues, our experience shows they fall into one of four groups:

Firstly there are those that simply do not recognise they have a need for language skills ““ the Anglocentrics who believe they can get by on English alone. We still have some work to do to convince this group that language skills can bring bottom-line benefits to their business by increasing their competitiveness and the reach of their markets.

Secondly there are those employers ““ most often small businesses – who may recognise the need for language skills, but do not have the capacity to recruit linguists over and above the engineers, IT specialists or finance officers that provide the core skills for their business. These employers need an education system which produces people with the right combinations of skills for them ““ there are far too few graduates who can offer languages in combination with maths or science subjects – and they need support from the various agencies which can help them grow their business and become more competitive in the global economy. It is unrealistic to expect them to provide incentives for GCSE students to opt for languages and hope that eventually this will have benefit for their own business competitiveness.

In the third category are those employers who are already successful international operators. To them language skills may be such a “given” that they are embedded in their recruitment and training policies. Why then, do they not speak up louder in support of languages in schools and universities? The answer is that these employers recruit internationally, they recognise the need for language skills but can fulfil it without regard to UK education systems. In these companies, global languages like English are key, but a multilingual workforce is the norm and UK nationals are not necessarily the beneficiaries. Indeed, there is already evidence that UK graduates without a second language are increasingly being excluded from positions in these types of company.

Finally, there is a forth group ““ those who have a long term vision for the need for language skills and how they can be harnessed to access information, to stimulate business and to create good relationships across borders and in the workplace. These employers understand instinctively that lack of language skills makes us less ambitious and less successful, as businesses, as individuals and as a nation. Often these employers have become Business Language Champions and are working actively with schools to promote language learning and an understanding of how languages are put to use in a business context. They may be members of CILT’s Employers Advisory Group or work with our Regional Language Networks to speak up for languages in debates on skills nationally or in the regions. Sometimes these people of vision are representatives of employer groups, or intermediaries in public sector organisations such as Regional Development Agencies who have a key role to play in developing the UK’s language capacity. It is they whose work will have the most impact, in time, on the language skills agenda, on the sort of courses we can offer our learners, and ultimately on the future role our young people are able to play in the international economy.

Isabella Moore, Director, CILT

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