U.S. Workers Fall Short of Employers’ Needs for Foreign Language Proficiency
by Leslie A. Miller
American companies’ demand for employees proficient in business-critical languages exceeds workers’ present levels of fluency and their future intent to learn new languages. Because new jobs in the international marketplace will increasingly require skill in Chinese, Arabic, Spanish, and Russian, employers may be unable to recruit and hire the staff they need to expand and compete worldwide.
Measuring Workplace Language Deficiencies
Non-English language proficiency is one of several high-level workforce skills that American companies seek for the knowledge-based jobs of the 21st century. Hiring managers worry about the gap between their companies’ need for such skills and the workforce’s readiness to deliver them. To explore whether such a gap exists for Arabic, Chinese, Russian, and Spanish language ability, the University of Phoenix Research Institute surveyed nearly 1,000 workers and employers across several industry sectors. Researchers surveyed workers about current fluency levels and their intent to learn languages of interest to U.S. companies. Employers were surveyed about their current and 10-year anticipated demand for the different languages.
The results, published in the report, Current and Future Language Demands in the Workplace: Proficiencies and Gaps, indicate that over four-fifths of job seekers and workers had low intent to learn Arabic, Chinese, or Russian, and almost three-fifths had little or no intent to learn Spanish. “Workers reported low rates of current proficiency to conduct business in these languages, and their intent to learn them lags behind employers’ anticipated demand across all industry sectors,” said Keri L. Heitner, a lead researcher with the University of Phoenix Research Institute and the study’s author. Workers’ intent to become proficient in Arabic, Chinese, Russian, and Spanish was lower than employers’ anticipated demand for these languages in every industry sector. Employers’ demand for Chinese fluency was about twice the demand for Arabic and three times the demand for Russian.
Source: Heitner, K. L. (2011). Current and Future Language Demands in the Workplace: Proficiencies and Gaps. Phoenix, AZ: University of Phoenix Research Institute.
Strategies for Closing the Language Gap Demand for specific languages varied across sectors, which represents an opportunity for workers. “To become more competitive in the labor market, workers should consider learning a language sought by their industry sector,” notes Tracey Wilen-Daugenti, vice president and managing director of the University of Phoenix Research Institute. Based on employers’ survey responses, learning Chinese would be most useful for employees of manufacturing companies or those with a corporate focus. Knowing Spanish could broaden health-care and education workers’ career prospects. Employers should consider their industry sector when taking action to minimize the gap between worker skill level and employer language needs.
Employers should partner with workers to remedy these language deficiencies. “Companies can raise awareness of how language skills can benefit employees’ careers and improve organizational competitiveness,” said Wilen-Daugenti. Organizations can improve access to training, offer language-program completion incentives, and perhaps incentivize employees to take language courses or major in languages when earning a college degree through the company tuition- assistance program. Education professionals can help by promoting ongoing workplace learning, whether at local colleges or online, and by advising workers of ways to integrate studies into busy schedules. By combining their efforts, industry stakeholders, leaders in education, and employees can prepare the American workforce for the linguistic needs of the global business community.
This post was provided by Leslie A. Miller, executive director of research at the University of Phoenix Research Institute. Read the full report or learn more at www.phoenix.edu/institute.