Closing the Foreign Language Skills Gap

November 1, 2019

As the construction workforce becomes increasingly diverse, language barriers on jobsites can lead to communication-based health and safety risks, and make collaboration challenging. But by taking action to improve the language skills of their workers, construction companies can alleviate these risks and increase productivity, according to a recent study.

 

The findings of a report published in May 2019 by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), “Making Languages Our Business: Addressing Foreign Language Demand Among U.S. Employers,” are based on a survey of employers across eight industries, including construction, that asked employers about the foreign language skills of their employees.

 

The study found that construction is the industry that has the largest gap between the need for employees who can speak languages other than English and the number of employees who can speak those languages, with 40% of the construction sector employers surveyed reporting a foreign language skills gap. The findings also indicated that 42% of the construction industry employers surveyed said they rely “a lot” on employees with foreign language skills, and that 54% of these respondents expect the demand for foreign language skills to increase over the next five years.

Researchers also noted that between 2013 and 2018, the demand for foreign language skills in the construction sector rose 49%.

 

The report’s authors observed that this strong and growing demand for foreign language skills is a natural result of evolving conditions in the marketplace, as U.S. employers are operating in an increasingly multilingual and multicultural economy in which 65 million residents speak a language other than English, 40% of whom have limited or no English proficiency. The survey found that nine out of 10 U.S. employers are reliant on U.S.- based employees with language skills other than English, with one-third reporting a high level of dependency. Spanish is by far the most in-demand foreign language reported by U.S. employers, followed by Chinese, French, Japanese, and German.

 

Researchers also emphasized that in the construction sector, it is not just communication on jobsites that is affected by the language gap, noting that 35% of the employers surveyed in the construction industry said they were unable to pursue or were losing business in the past three years due to a lack of foreign language skills. According to the report, the construction sector employers surveyed indicated that they need employees with foreign language skills across a range of departments, including customer service (40%), production (38%), sales (35%), administrative work (28%), marketing(21%), purchasing (19%), management (18%),and accounting/finance (17%).

 

However, when asked if they test prospective or current employees for their language skills, just 48% of the construction industry employers surveyed indicated that they perform such assessments. The results also showed that only 35% of these employers said they offer their employees language training.

 

The report outlined several strategies U.S. businesses can use to improve their workforce’s foreign language skills. Specifically, researchers recommended conducting a language needs analysis to identify strengths and weaknesses, and to define current and future language needs. They also suggested conducting outside language testing and assessment to identify linguistic strengths and weaknesses, and maintaining an inventory of linguistic and cultural competencies of the company’s workforce.

 

In addition, the report recommended making foreign languages a strategic focus during the recruitment process, and setting hiring targets for employees with foreign language skills based on the organization’s goals. The study also advocated training candidates and employees who lack the required level of language proficiency, focusing on meeting those needs with functional, industry-specific immersive language training. 

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