Achtung Baby: Will Growing Demand for Languages Worsen the UK’s Language Gap?

The costs, commitment and time involved in taking on more staff mean those who make hiring decisions always have one eye on the future. But while their immediate focus is usually dominated by workflow, budgets and staffing questions, looking beyond the short term can reveal valuable insights that help them make better hires now.

Indeed has a front-row seat on trends in the jobs market; our data gives us an unparalleled snapshot of who is hiring, whom they are looking for, and who the jobseekers are.

Following the first in this blog series, that explored the jobs which are currently the hardest to recruit for, our team has now looked at trends in demand for languages, and what the present demand can tell us about the future of roles that require specific language skills.

Communication is at the heart of every aspect of business and our work lives. Couple that with an ever-more connected world, with many companies trading internationally, and the role language plays becomes increasingly important.

In the UK, we lean heavily on our native language being a universal one, as evidenced by this blog being written in English and not available in translation – too often we assume that our mother tongue is all that we need.

However, with many global businesses operating throughout the country, not to mention the large numbers of non-UK-born staff in the collective workforce, the reality is that most modern offices will have a wide variety of language skills on offer, even if they do go untapped.

Many businesses, though, are wise to this fact. Whether it is international companies with UK offices or British businesses with operations overseas, the benefits of being able to converse in a native language are obvious, and employers are understandably seeking staff with language skills.

Our team analysed job postings from Indeed’s site to determine what the most popular languages among UK employers are, and what this indicates about future opportunities for multilingual workers.

German takes the gold

Currently, the most sought-after language is German, edging out French to take top spot.

Seven of the top ten are European, though more than half of these have actually seen a decline in the number of postings per million in the last three years – most notably Polish, demand for which has fallen by almost a third (28.83%).

As seen in the graph below, German and French have vied for top spot since the start of 2016 and have largely tracked each other throughout that period. However, demand for Francophones has only increased by 1.17% in the past three years, while postings requiring German speakers have climbed by more than a tenth, earning it the top spot.

Overall, the share of job postings specifying language requirements are up by 2.7% since 2016, with the need for staff skilled in this way seemingly undiminished by any perception that the universality of English will suffice – linguists are still very much in demand.

British bulldog in China’s shop

While German leads the way, the biggest climber in the last three years is Chinese – meaning both Mandarin and Cantonese – which has risen from fifth place to third in terms of employer demand.

This is due to an increase of a massive 35.39% in the share of job postings seeking Chinese speakers since 2016.

China looks set to overtake the USA as the world’s largest economy at some point in the next decade and securing a trade deal with the superpower is a high priority for the British government as it plans for a future outside the European Union.

In that event, the number of jobs for Chinese speakers will likely climb even more, but its current spurt is likely due to a continued global expansion of China’s own companies, establishing a presence in key global territories – such as the UK and particularly London.

Beware the Brexit blues

Casting its long shadow over proceedings, however, is the ongoing Brexit uncertainty. Demand for linguists may well be up, and European languages may remain the most highly sought. But where will these speakers of additional tongues come from?

There are two streams. The first is from the UK’s own education system – if we can produce more bilingual or, better still, polyglot candidates ourselves, we can supply this demand with British workers.

The second is from migration, and by importing talent from overseas whose native tongue is one of the languages required.

On both fronts, the current picture is not an encouraging one. Official data reveals that the number of students taking a language at GCSE has declined by 45% this century, with German (-67%) and French (-63%) suffering the biggest drops.

Meanwhile, the supply of native speakers of European languages is set to wane as the latest ONS figures show net migration from the EU is now at its lowest level for ten years.

And with the prospect of Brexit pegging back the appetite of EU citizens to work in the UK, Indeed’s own research reveals a steady fall in interest in UK jobs among EU-based jobseekers.

Will the UK end up tongue-tied?

The conclusion to draw in terms of what this means for the future of jobs that require language skills is that the UK could soon face even more difficulty than it currently does.

The ongoing tightness of the jobs market means employers have already been struggling to find sufficiently skilled staff to fill vacancies, and language skills remain highly sought-after.

Given the decline in students graduating with additional languages from the UK schooling system, it is unlikely British workers will be able to plug these gaps.

And as the UK’s own linguists decline rapidly in number, there is the perfect storm of Brexit already leading to diminished interest from European jobseekers in crossing the Channel to work here, before any kind of actual Withdrawal Agreement is even in place.

As a multicultural society and an economy with a global presence, driven in no small part by international companies with British presences, the UK looks vulnerable to a shortage of linguists amid a widening language gap.

The flipside is that from a jobseekers’ perspective, this spells great opportunity to leverage the demand for language skills and command higher salaries as employers are forced to fight harder than ever for this specialist talent.

Ultimately, it might be a problem without a clear solution. We will always need linguists, and in the future it looks like we will need them as much as we ever have done. An imminent shortage, though, does have the potential to leave the UK somewhat tongue-tied in the years to come.

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