Language-strategy

5 steps to building an efficient language skills strategy

We have entered the era of the skills gap – the discrepancy between the skills that an organization has and the skills that it requires to achieve its goals and meet customer demand. 83% of HR professionals report a skills gap in their organization and two-thirds of global executives rated upskilling or reskilling their workforce as a top-10 priority. The biggest skill where global companies perceive a gap? Communication and interpersonal skills.


For European companies, communication skills mean language skills. Faced with small domestic markets, businesses in Europe once they reach a certain size are forced to interact across borders in order to grow, acquire new customers and markets, acquire companies and work with suppliers. This is particularly noticeable in the technology sector where European start-ups, for example, pursue international expansion a full 19 months ahead of their American counterparts of the same size. This goal of international growth becomes unmanageable unless certain skills are present within key customer-facing teams and one of the main ones are language skills. More than 90% of European companies believe that foreign language proficiency is mission-critical to their growth and relationships with customers. This proportion is even higher among large, multinational companies.

If the 2019 or 2020 goals of your enterprise involve international expansion and growth, better communication between global subsidiaries or headquarters, some or all of your employees will need to demonstrate a minimum language level. Without a strategy for identifying the skills needed, identifying whether the skills are in place where you need them, measuring the extent of the skills gap and closing the skills gap, you are relying on a pray-and-hope strategy. “Fail to plan and plan to fail,” as they say.

“Everyone needs to be fluent”

Once you have identified your business goals and the skills required to achieve them, the question becomes: what level of skill do you need and in which teams or departments? Does every employee in every department need to be completely fluent in English? (What does “fluent” mean anyway?)

Step 1: Identify which departments, teams and positions are exposed internationally to customers, suppliers, subsidiaries or relationships with the parent company.

For EMEA and APAC subsidiaries of American companies, it may mean every employee is impacted in some way, through all-employee calls, corporate emails, or corporate compliance training. For a large French bank with international customers but whose headquarters is in Paris, it may only mean customer-facing employees in sales, marketing, customer service and project management require language skills in the short-term.

Step 2: Define the language level required for each position or department and ideally in a way that is clear and quantifiable.

The goal is to get away from ambiguous definitions of “good English” or “fluent English” that can be interpreted differently within the enterprise by HR professionals, managers and employees. The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is helpful in this regard. The framework, created by the Council of Europe in 2003, outlines 6 common standardized levels from A1 to C2 with definitions for what each level constitutes and what the employee can do.

Some companies for whom language skills are critical for every employee set a single language level requirement for the enterprise as a whole. This is common for international subsidiaries like the French entity of the Indian technology services company, Tata Consultancy Services, where all employees in France need to communicate with the other subsidiaries and the headquarters. Other companies will set specific language levels by department or by position. In EASYRECRUE our account executives and customer success managers need to have a C1 level in English in order to communicate successfully with global accounts.

Does a software developer need to be an A2, B1, B2 or C1?

Language-strategy2

How do you determine which CEFR language level a position requires? This hinges on the tasks the employee needs to do, in oral and written form, and this may be different between one company and another. A software developer in an Italian insurance company may only need to be able to read documentation in English while a software developer in the German office of Oracle will need to take part in conference calls with New York, London, Warsaw and Bangalore and write emails in English explaining technical solutions.

Examples of common tasks and the CEFR level required

Oral

Negotiate with customers and suppliers (native speakers)

C1

Participate in interactive meetings or conference calls (native speakers)

B2

Participate in structured meetings or conference calls (non-native speakers)

B1

Written

Write technical or functional documentation

B2

Write simple emails

B1

 

The professional services team at EASYRECRUE works with its customers to help them define the language level baselines for their departments. Do not hesitate to get in touch with us if this is a current goal of yours. 

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Does your enterprise have the language skills it needs?

Now that you have defined the baseline – the language skill level needed for the enterprise or key positions – it’s time to check that your employees have this baseline level.

Step 3: Perform a skills inventory or skills mapping of the company or the key positions that you have identified.

The skills inventory should produce a CEFR level for each employee in terms of speaking and writing proficiency and it will allow you to compare the current CEFR level to the baseline CEFR level to determine whether there is a skills gap within the organization as a whole, by department and by employee.

If the results of your skills inventory show that everything is rosy and all employees and departments have the requisite language level, you can pat yourself on the back in the knowledge that your company has the language skills it needs to achieve its objectives. If the results show, on the other hand, that there are skills gaps with specific departments, the next step will be to decide how to tackle and close these gaps and how to prevent them from forming in the future.

How do you close the skills gap?

Language-strategy3

This is where your language skills strategy comes into play. How do you plan to get the skills that you need to achieve your objectives? There are generally three ways to do this: hiring, upskilling and internal mobility. When it comes to language skills, hiring and upskilling are the most common.

Step 4A: Hire the language skills

Presumably if you have language skills gap in your organization, it is because the language level was not a pre-hire requirement in your recruitment process, or potentially the baseline level required was not high enough or measurable enough. That is, your recruiters either didn’t check candidates’ language proficiency, or they checked it informally by asking a few questions during the interview (resulting at best in a good-bad rating that was determined by each recruiter by comparing the candidate’s level to their own).

Having now identified a required language level for each position, should this level now be a pre-hire requirement in the organization going forward?

There are trade-offs on both sides. The stricter the hiring requirements, the more candidates you will lose in your recruitment process. The less strict the hiring requirements, the more you will need to invest in upskilling your employees later.

Let’s say you determine that every sales executive, consultant and account manager in your enterprise needs to be a B2 in oral and written English.

Hiring policy scenario

Benefits & savings

Drawbacks & costs

You set a mandatory B2 requirement for all candidates being considered for these positions (i.e., the candidate has to achieve a B2 in speaking and writing on your pre-hire language assessment)

You will eliminate the cost and time to train them, at least in language communication.

That saves:

  • Training costs: 1,000-2,000 euros per employee
  • Lost working hours while the employee is in training: 4-5 hours per week over 6 months
  • Productivity losses until the employee becomes operational

You will lose otherwise qualified candidates whose language skills do not meet the requirement.

That incurs:

  • Sourcing costs
  • Lost recruiter or hiring manager time on the rejected candidate’s application, such as phone screening or assessment day interviews, prior to the language assessment

You aim to hire B2 candidates but will still consider strong candidates that demonstrate an A2 or B1 level if they possess other desirable technical or business skills. (Let’s say you’ll rule out any A1 candidates because the gap is too large)

You will be able to keep qualified candidates in the hiring pipeline, saving your sourcing and pre-screening costs and effort.

 It also generates goodwill with candidates when the organization is willing to train employees to improve their skills.

The company will potentially need to put in place upskilling plans for any A2 or B1 candidates hired and this has costs for both the L&D department and the hiring manager in terms of training and lost productivity (outlined above).

Ultimately the option you choose depends on a variety of factors – difficulty of finding candidates with the other technical and business skills, L&D budget available for language training (that is, for example, not needed for other types of training), etc. – but it should be decision made with both the business and HR, including talent acquisition, talent management and L&D.

Step 4B: Use upskilling to raise the language level

If you decide not to impose language proficiency as a pre-hire requirement or you have a group of existing employees with skills gaps, you will be using the L&D lever to address the skills gap.

The key to implementing successful upskilling projects is:

  1. Knowing the employee’s current skill level

You will know this from the skills inventory or pre-hire assessment results.

  1. Defining a relevant, measurable and quantifiable training objective

For language proficiency, this will be a CEFR level and it will generally be the baseline required level or if this gap is too large, one level above the employee’s current level.

  1. Choosing an upskilling plan designed to reach the training objective

This will be different for each employee depending on how far they are from the goal.

Let’s take an example of Silvia and Francesco, two sales executives working for your company. In order to achieve your international growth goals, all sales executives handling international accounts need to be a C1. Silvia, however, is only a B1 according to the results of the skills inventory. She has a two-level skills gap and this is quite a large gap to close in one single year, so her upskilling plan will need to occur over 2 years, closing one level gap each year.

Francesco, on the other hand, is a C1 in writing and a B2 in speaking. He has no skills gap in writing but a one-level gap in speaking. As a result, his upskilling plan will only need to focus on closing the gap in speaking proficiency.

Employee

Current level

Required level

Training objective in Year 1

Upskilling plan to achieve the Year 1 objective

Silvia

B1 (speaking)

B1 (writing)

C1 (speaking)

C1 (writing)

B2 (speaking)

B2 (writing)

50 hours of teacher-led training focused on linguistic and professional skills

50 hours of e-learning/homework

Francesco

B2 (speaking)

C1 (writing)

C1 (speaking)

C1 (writing)

C1 (speaking)

 

20 hours of teacher-led training focused on linguistic and professional skills

20 hours of e-learning/homework

Surprised by how many hours it takes to close the gap between two CEFR levels? Generally, it takes 35-50 hours of teacher-led training, plus the equivalent in e-learning or homework, to go from one CEFR level to another. It is a real time investment for the employee and a cost investment for the enterprise and it’s no wonder that organizations who allocate 20 hours of training each employee every year fail to see the overall language level of their employees improve over time.

How do we ensure the gaps have been closed?

Once you have put in place an L&D program designed to close the skills gaps in your organization, the job is not done. We need to check that the skills gaps have indeed been closed because there are many possible reasons why it may not have occurred.

Step 5: Assess the employee’s language level at the end of the training and compare it against the training objective

The re-assessment should again be based on the CEFR framework so that it can be compared to the employee’s level at the start of the training and the concrete, measurable training objective. For objectivity reasons and to avoid possible bias, the assessment should not be performed by the training provider or the teacher who delivered the training.

With the results of the objective re-assessment and the defined training objective, you will be able to determine whether the skills gap for each employee was closed, whether additional training is required, and calculate the ROI of the training and the upskilling initiative as a whole. After all, if it is not being measured, how can it be improved?

Take-aways

  • A language skills strategy begins by identifying the business goals that requires language skills, the departments and positions impacted and defining the baseline language level needed for these positions.
  • Carrying out a language skills inventory or mapping allows the enterprise to see how the current level of existing employees stacks up and whether there are skills gaps that will impede achievement of the business goals.
  • It is up to each enterprise to define to what degree the action plan will involve hiring language skills, upskilling existing employees, or a mix of the two.
  • If upskilling plans are implemented, they should be designed based on the defined training objective and the employee’s skills should be re-assessed at the end of the training to ensure the gap has been closed.

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