Bringing back the skills

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Written by Armin Hopp on 25 February 2014

With the UK's economic future looking brighter than expected, it's time for a reality check of the country's workforce skills. 

I was interested to read about the Prime Minister's recent announcement of a new governmental body called "Reshore UK". To me, this really reflected the improvement of the UK's economy. The aim of this initiative is to bring home skills and positions which, at another time, would have been outsourced to India and China to keep expenses down. With staff costs in Asia rising in recent years, offshoring jobs isn't as attractive as it used to be. Furthermore, locating jobs back within the UK will boost the nation's job market and help to drive the economic growth. The burning question is, are our talent resources ready to be reshored?

As I'm sure many of our readers have experienced one of the first things companies tend to cut back on during tough economic times are organisational learning and development. This manoeuvre may help to save costs in the short term, but will create significant problems in the long run: The glaring gap between what we want our workforce to achieve and the skills they actually possess to get there. 

Shortage of language skills

According to a recent survey , businesses across the UK are struggling to find talent for over a fifth (22 percent) of their vacancies. This skills shortage will be damaging to the recovering economy if schools, universities and organisations fail to take action. The main skills employers found to be lacking among their candidates were technical, job-specific skills (accounting for 63 percent), followed by foreign language skills (17 percent). Similarly, universities across the UK have experienced a significant drop in Modern Language degrees in recent years.

Two issues come to mind when we talk about lack of language skills in the UK. On the one hand, there are about 800,000 people in England and Wales with little or no English language skills. Sadly, the majority of these people have no job. This situation may even deteriorate if the government decides to go through with the plan of offering careers and benefits services in English only, as announced last month . This is a missed opportunity when it comes to tapping into new sources of talent. Immigrants living in the UK may well be able to fill the vacancies demanding specialist technical skills mentioned above, but lack the language skills to get information on these vacancies in the first place. If careers centres help them grasp a working knowledge of English and they are then taken on by a company with an online language learning solution embedded in their work plan from day one, they will boost their linguistic abilities while they work. They will also become integrated in the organisation and can start to support it with skills their employer might otherwise not have been able to find in-house. Today's technology allows for language and business communication training to be seamlessly integrated in a daily work schedule.  

In Germany, for example, the Federal Employment Agency offers free online language courses to all registered job seekers. That's more than four million people. In fact, language training has the highest user adoption rates among all skill development tools on offer within the "Lernbörse" platform. The e-learning system is completely integrated into the agency's learning management system. This way, job seekers are encouraged to actively improve their skills, and thereby, their career prospects, while searching for new positions through the agency.

The other challenge lies with those who do speak English as a first language and therefore assume there is no need to learn a second one - English being the world's dominant business language, after all. This too represents a missed opportunity to build international business. For example, there are 420 million native Spanish speakers in the world and 220 million Portuguese speakers. Emerging markets in Latin America could represent exciting new business prospects for the UK, which are often missed due to a lack of language skills on both sides. A UK-based organisation that goes the extra mile to ensure its employees speak another language will benefit from a clear head start. Not only does it signal intercultural awareness and intellect to prospective clients and partners, it will also make these prospects feel more comfortable and open when communicating about business dealings - and therefore, more likely to seal the deal.

The time is now for employers to start bringing home the right skills to their organisations. One major item on their agenda should be to boost the required language skills among both native and non-native speakers of English. Only this way can a business reap the full rewards of a strong and culturally diverse workforce and tap into opportunities beyond the UK's borders.

About the author
Armin Hopp is the founder and president of Speexx. He can be contacted via

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