Ireland’s workforce lags behind the rest of Europe when it come to speaking foreign languages, which is something that will have to be remedied if we are to make real economic headway, writes Gareth Naughton of ‘The Sunday Business Post’.

Ireland’s exporters are looking overseas to fill thousands of vacancies because the workforce has neither the languages nor the international sales skills they need.

That is according to a new report from Forfas and the Export Group on Future Skills Needs (EGFSN), which is calling for a fresh approach to the teaching of languages from primary school right through to third level.The group also wants to see more third level students and postgraduates getting the opportunity to add an accredited international sales qualification to their CVs.

“The most fundamental issues are foreign languages and cultural awareness. Foreign languages in Ireland are treated like second cousins,” said Una Halligan, chairperson of the EGFSN.”We just don’t promote them. We have a lot of very highly skilled graduates, but they cannot go to work in Germany or Spain, because they don’t have a second language.

“Mandarin and Indian are equally important but, because we do much trade within the EU, we found that our lack of a second European foreign language was actually a huge hindrance to being able to export in those areas and to do business.”

The upshot, Halligan said, was that companies were looking outside Ireland to fill some vacant positions, despite the high level of unemployment here.

Radical Solution Needed

Exporters may require a radical – and potentially controversial – solution to the gap in language skills in the Irish market, said Colm Buckley, managing director, The People Group.

“From the commercial perspective, we don’t have the resouces necessary in terms of people with foreign languages – we simply do not have enough of them – and there are companies crying out for them in unemployed Ireland right now,” said Buckley.

“The government needs to look at the education system for further down the road and they can, right now, incentivise people to come here that have the skills,” he said.

Although such a measure could prove unpopular in a country with a relatively high rate of unemployment, Buckley said the shortfall in language skills has created a two-tier employment market, in which there were few candidates for available bilingual or multilingual roles.

“They are going to move for the opportunity to work with a global player and to advance their career, but it is a big move to come to a distressed country like Ireland,” he said.

“What incentive can we put on the table? For the first year, a reduced tax rate to get them over here and then, after that, they are contributing like anybody else to the tax system here.We have a need right now and we cannot service it from within.

“If we do not service it, what happens when these companies announce that they are pulling out of Ireland and moving to Germany or France? Then what do we do?” he said.

The approach to sales had improved in Ireland in recent years, with many Irish companies taking a more professional approach to building customer relationships. He added, however, that language barriers could hold back the country’s performance in the long run.

“For a lot of the roles that we have filled that have an international sales dimension, companies are looking for somebody who is going to be based out of Ireland – who has worked in Abu Dhabi for a number of years, for instance, and understands that culture or that market,” said Buckley.

“More connection with the dispora and more of a network with the dispora would help, but I don’t necessarily think that if the government throws funding at it, it is going to sort it out. It is a longer term play,” he said.


Taken from the ‘careers and recruitment’ supplement in ‘The Sunday Business Post’ from July 1st.