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Multilingual people needed for FDI jobs Shutterstock

Aaron McKenna Irish people are losing out on jobs because we are not multilingual

The new jobs on offer are not beyond the capabilities of our people, but there is one thing we are lacking – a proficiency in foreign languages, writes Aaron McKenna, who says we should try and rectify this for future generations.

JOB ANNOUNCEMENTS FROM the foreign direct investment sector are coming at a regular clip, with Symantec announcing 400 new jobs in my own back yard of Dublin 15. Any jobs are more than welcome, as they get new money into the economy. Unfortunately for a great many of the posts on offer, Symantec and its peers will need to import the talent. For all the hundreds of thousands who are ready and keen to take a job, the qualifications are outside the reach of most people who are the product of our education system.

It’s not that the roles on offer are beyond the capabilities of our people. Symantec and many other IDA supported companies run a large customer management centre. Others run sales centers in parallel to service. The jobs require educated and clever people, but not a PhD in anything.

Foreign Languages

What the roles do nearly universally require is proficiency in a foreign language. To put it bluntly, the our primary and secondary education system can barely produce graduates who speak Irish.

We are one of only two countries in the EU, alongside Scotland, that does not have compulsory foreign language courses during primary and secondary school. An EU study in 2006 found that 56 per cent of Europeans can hold a conversation in a second language to their native tongue. Ireland was the member state with the highest percentage of citizens admitting to not knowing any language other than their mother tongue, 66 per cent in all. Among the other 34 per cent there were varying levels of proficiency.

A quick – and informal – survey of recent FDI jobs announcements shows that for every three companies establishing or expanding manufacturing, research and development operations there are ten with a primary focus on multilingual customer care, sales and support operations. Now every company creates a variety of roles across many departments and skill sets, but it is undeniable that a great proportion of the jobs created are multilingual in nature. It is also an inescapable fact that these jobs cannot be filled by an Irish population that is not multilingual.

Multilingual applicants needed

A senior Human Resources director in one of the bigger foreign companies operating a sales and support center here described his job to me as “effectively running a travel agency.” As a large company with a substantial requirement for a variety of languages he has developed a network of recruitment agents across the world, primarily in Europe, who source candidates. The company arranges to relocate them to Ireland, with a fine art in getting people all they need to get set up and working happily; and there is an active retention program in place.

Still, people churn on a regular basis. Many go to smaller companies in Ireland that require the same language skills and are willing to pay a premium for experienced people in small teams. Symantec will likely get a good number transferring from existing companies, who will in turn need to import more workers into a country with hundreds of thousands unemployed.

Where there is a skills gap I am all in favour of importing people rather than letting the job go elsewhere. These people come here, pay taxes, rent and integrate and generally contribute to the country. I am a firm believer, besides any economic argument, that Ireland is a better place today for being more multicultural than it was even twenty years ago.

Importing people in fill jobs

It does, however, seem an awful waste to have to be importing people to a country that does have a first world education system, is a long established global hub and yet doesn’t seem to have managed to put two and two together to produce people capable of speaking a foreign language.

The government, of course, is actually doing quite the opposite: It killed a nascent foreign language program in primary schools during 2012’s budget cutbacks. The same cutbacks are also seeing science getting cut in schools, another move bound to lead to a surge in demand for foreign workers in the future.

About 80 per cent of secondary school students study a foreign language. 50 per cent is French, 13.4 per cent German, 6.7 per cent Spanish and so on into smaller and smaller cohorts. The problem is that they have started too late, and don’t continue into third level to achieve fluency. Only three per cent of kids at primary level learn a foreign language. The typical age for starting to learn a foreign language in other EU countries is between six and nine.

We have two ingrained problems when it comes to learning foreign languages to a level of proficiency required to turn them into jobs.

English is not enough

Firstly, we have a belief that English is enough. It is the dominant language in the world, after all. But when a German wants customer support, he or she wants it in German thank you very much; even if the call center is in Dublin. The needs of our economy, which is export led, points to a situation where English is helpful; but it is demonstrably not enough.

Secondly, we are really, really crap at teaching Irish; and this influences our learning of any other language. Lets face it, the vast majority of Irish people are not fluent in Irish. Depending on how you squint at the census, there are between 70,000 and 190,000 people who speak Irish fluently on a regular basis. Nearly 1.8 million of us stated that we can speak Irish, but there’s a good likelihood that a great many of us simply remember key survival phrases such as “An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas?”

Contemplate for a moment, if you would, the massive national effort that delivers this result. Irish is compulsory from the first day of primary school to the last of secondary, a span of 13 or 14 of the most formative years in our lives. Every primary school teacher is required to be fluent. In secondary school we devote more time to it than any other subject besides English and maths. So devoted are we that even those who cannot speak the language after primary are put into “Foundation Level” classes where you can spend most of your time playing twenty questions, in English, and still learn enough key phrases to get an A in your state exams.

Teaching young children

It is not simply a question of saying “Lets teach foreign languages to kids from age 7,” as they are introducing in England from 2014. It’s about asking “How the hell can we teach a language to kids five days a week during the school year, for over a decade, and the whole country isn’t fluent?”

I don’t believe we should ditch Irish in favour of foreign languages. I do believe that we should look at a better balance between subjects like Irish and religion, which eats up 10 per cent of teaching time in primary school versus 4 per cent for science, and things like foreign languages.

We need to address fundamental underperformance in the Irish education system as well. Whatever the rot that afflicts the teaching of Irish needs to be sorted so that we don’t repeat it for other languages if we introduced them at a young age. Part of the trick to learning languages is learning how to learn a language; and mastery of Irish could be a stepping stone for kids.

Similarly, despite a spending increase in real terms of over 60 per cent over the years we have been sliding in the OECD PISA world rankings of school systems in the core subject areas of literacy, math and science. Clearly, there are problems that need addressing if we are to be successful even at these core subjects, let alone learning new languages.

It is a shame that all those unemployed today cannot speak the variety of languages required to take up jobs on offer at multilingual focused companies that make up the core of our foreign direct investment. We should try and rectify that for future generations.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

Column: Yes, we can save Irish – but there’s no point trying to spread it>

Census 2011: Half a million people speak a language other than English at home>

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