THE BLOG

Is the 'Skills Shortage' Actually a Language Barrier?

05/02/2014 13:43 GMT | Updated 05/04/2014 10:59 BST

Businesses are struggling to fill the skills gap but could lack of English language training be the problem?

According to the government's skills watchdog, a sharp rise in skills shortages in the UK threatens to hold back the pace of recovery in parts of the economy. Whilst job vacancies in England are back to pre-recession levels, the remaining shortages are largely due to businesses not finding recruits with the right qualifications and experience, and these types of vacancies are increasing according to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills. The study highlighted that amongst other skills, "There has been an increase in the proportion of skill-shortage vacancies resulting from a lack of communication skills, particularly oral communication (41%, up from 37% in 2011).

The fear is that businesses might not be able to make the most of the upturn if they don't have the people with the right skills. However, the report also found that a third of employers don't provide any training to staff, and that this number has hardly changed for the past ten years. In fact, spending on training has fallen by over 2 billion in since 2011.

The watchdog found that the manufacturing industry was suffering the most from skills shortages, and a recent government report "The future of manufacturing: A new era of opportunity and challenge for the UK" highlights that it is the quality and skills of the workforce that will be critical in capturing competitive advantage when pitted against international competition. This is so important in fact that according to the report, a shortage in skilled workers in the manufacturing industry is leading to some employers recruiting from outside the UK to seek the best talent and for strategically important skills.

However, it could be that the skilled people that are needed are already within the business. This is especially true when it comes to international companies, whether that be manufacturing, retail, healthcare, or finance. But could a lack of the right language skills be restricting their ability to contribute fully to the business?

The World Trade Organisation estimates that 70 percent of the Global 1000 workforce is made up of non-native English speakers, and in the UK alone nearly 1 in 10 of the workforce is a non-native speaker of English Could it be that through an under prioritisation of language training, these skilled workers are less able to communicate efficiently in the workplace and therefore unable to demonstrate their skills and value to the organisation?

In a recent study by Rosetta Stone Enterprise and Education of over 300 decision makers in global businesses, 77% of respondents said that investing in training staff in English increases business profitability by 25% through business benefits such as increased productivity, quality of work and customer satisfaction. In fact, 88% of respondents said English language training contributes to increased overall success for organisations.

Despite nearly 70 per cent of executives in a 2012 survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit stating that their workforce will need to master English to realise corporate expansion plans, and a quarter saying that more than 50 per cent of their total workforce will need English ability, 75% of executives surveyed by The Economist Intelligence Unit rated their colleagues' ability to communicate internationally as average or below. This is surprising given the widely accepted assumption that English is the lingua franca of business.

It's obvious then, that when it comes to organisations with a geographically or linguistically diverse workforce, English skills are by no means advanced across the board. Furthermore, business language requires a specific and more focussed training programme than your average language training programme.

In order to ensure that organisations are not missing out on maximising the talent already within the business, they need to invest in training to enable those skilled people to perform and communicate effectively within the organisation.

Organisations are looking to new recruits to plug the skills gap, but they shouldn't forget to search closer to home as well. Providing employees with the necessary support and training to learn or improve their English language skills will enable organisations to ensure that they are capitalising on all of the skills already within the business. Doing this would help to build competitive advantage, increase retention of talented individuals and ensure that skilled employees are as valuable as possible to the business.

Talent speaks many languages, but when an international team can communicate through a common tongue the overall success of an organisation is increased and individuals are utilised to their maximum potential. Crossing the language barrier might be all that's needed in order to bridge the skills gap.