Can learning a language get me a job?

Recent reports have revealed that the UK has Europe's biggest concentration of telephone call centres.

The reasons for this are a complex mix of the uneven international progress in the telecommunication industry and the benefits of the UK business environment, but include the range of skills and expertise - including languages - found in the UK workforce.

By looking in more detail at the growth of call centre operations, it is possible to build a picture of the likely impact of language skills on employment opportunities more generally in the UK.

Datamonitor has issued a report, according to Andrew Fraser of the Invest in Britain Bureau, which claims that the UK's position as the largest provider of call centres will remain unchallenged for the foreseeable future.

One of the latest organisations to invest is the Halifax Group, which is establishing a centre to create 1,500 jobs in Northern Ireland, and this is in addition to two it already runs in Yorkshire. With its total commitment to training, this large banking company illustrates the sort of employment opportunities which are arising.

It has been claimed that there are over 5,000 call centres in the UK, if you include those in-house, all offering highly professional services. For instance, the international airline Delta has stated that its west London centre handles 1.2 million calls a year, in ten languages, whilst other world companies are constantly expanding in the field and looking for competent foreign language speakers.

Delta is not alone in setting up operations in London, with Air France among other recent arrivals. There have been several references recently to the fact that in London alone there are 275 spoken languages, with 33 ethnic communities. Add this to the increasing international mix of the labour force and you have one of the main reasons for these companies choosing to settle in London.

Indeed, London First, the organisation responsible for attracting inward investment to capital, has argued that it is precisely because employers can find multilingual skills in London that many of them will relocate there.

On the other hand, Gateway computers have established a call centre employing 800 people in Dublin. However, it has experienced difficulties in finding sufficient staff able to speak the required languages and this has meant an overseas recruitment drive to fill nearly one third of vacancies.

IBM UK Ltd has a similar tale to tell. They located their international technical support call centre in Greenock in Scotland, With the intention of building their workforce from the local population. However, they, too, have had to employ a majority of people from overseas, not because of a lack of technical capability, but because of a shortage of foreign language skill in the local community.

IBM has responded by signing up to the language NTO certificate of commitment scheme, which confirms their dedication to improving the foreign language competence of their employees and to basing this training on the National Language Standards.

However, the message from all these companies is clear: English is a world language of undoubted importance in any job which has an international dimension. But it does not follow that the mono-linguistic English speaker is winning the employment race. Those people with more than one language have demonstrably increased chances in some fact has not gone unnoticed and there appears to be a growing interest in learning foreign languages.

Unlike several of our national competitors, language competence is not yet officially recognised in the UK, for example, as a key graduate skill; but unofficially, there is plenty of evidence that the tide has turned and with good reason.

Figures for 1998 language graduates put their unemployment rate at graduation (4.5%) below the national average for graduates have one of the lowest unemployment rates of any subject: 4.2% for German, 4.3% for French, compared with 6% for business administration and 7.5% for media studies (source HESA 1999).

Graduates with language skills in their portfolio, are finding that employers in the major sectors have increase in job vacancies notified to them which specify a preference for out of the 1998 UK language graduates who went straight into employment, 26.9% were in business services, 12.7% in manufacturing, 11.6% in wholesale/retail sales, and 10.4% in banking and finance.

UK firms with offices abroad or with international trading patterns are clear importance. Equally, companies from outside the UK who locate here are expecting UK employees to be able to operate in the language of the parent company. A new French sportswear company, Decathlon, insists that to speak French or demonstrate a willingness to learn.

So the message is clear - learn another language and get a job!

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