British school leavers today are some of the worst in the industrialised world for their knowledge of foreign languages – a fact acknowledged in a report produced last year for the Department for Education and Skills.
It called for a rethink of the way languages are taught in the UK, and a reversal of the policy that now means children can ditch languages from their timetable at the age of 14.
For travel, the situation could not be worse. Recruitment specialists say they are crying out for multi-lingual candidates, with Spanish, French and Italian especially in demand.
“Between 10% and 15% of the jobs we get on the books require a foreign language,” explained C&M Recruitment sales manager Barbara Kolosinska.
“Reservations and contracting staff with languages are highly prized. If the role requires an additional language it is likely the salary will reflect that.
“All of the European languages are attractive and the increasing importance of China and the Far East means Mandarin and Cantonese are sought after too.”
Even if you don’t already speak a second language, Kolosinska believes employers look favourably on candidates who are willing to improve their language skills in their spare time.
Rosetta Stone, a company that produces online language tuition, reports this year’s sales are up 34% on last year.
Marketing director Michael Lafante said evidence suggests those opting to improve their language knowledge were doing it for professional reasons.
He said: “People become more confident and independent when travelling, are able to interact with a wider range of people and are more marketable to potential employers.”
Case study: the employer
Such is the shortage of agents with language skills that travel management giant Carlson Wagonlit now looks outside the industry for frontline staff.
Human resources director Sue Kavanagh said it is standard practice for the company to take on bilingual recruits from university and train them to be agents.
“Our clients are operating in a global marketplace and often they would rather have all their Carlson Wagonlit staff working out of one office, and that means they must be multi-lingual,” she said.
Kavanagh said CWT offered real opportunities for those with two or more European languages in its 24-hour European emergency centre.
Because of their skills, and the requirement to work shifts, the agents are well rewarded.
“We are competing with other areas of the industry and so foreign language-speakers have real flexibility in the labour market. Our salaries have to reflect that,” said Kavanagh.
Case study: the employee
Claire Pymm, general manager, supplier development, TUI UK
Like most kids, I had to do French at school. I then did a fast-track Spanish A Level in the sixth form and went on to do a degree in French and Spanish.
I knew I wanted to use my languages for work, and was lucky enough to land a job with Thomson before I left university.
I started out as a trainee purchaser and was quickly thrown in to contracting hotels in Spain and the Canaries.
There was an issue learning all the travel industry jargon, but after that it went smoothly.
Hoteliers appreciate someone conducting business in their language and want to deal with us. It works both ways.
Since then I’ve moved around the business, but I have made a point of trying to keep using my languages.
I’d certainly advise people to try to learn another language. With dynamic packaging it could certainly help when it comes to talking to hotel staff overseas.