English proficiency as a competitive edge
The availability of quality human resources is one of the Philippines’ key advantages, according to the Board of Investments. “Our people are highly educated. The literacy rate is 94 percent and 70 percent of the population are fluent in English, making us one of the largest English-speaking countries in the world. Filipinos also have strong customer service orientation and are highly trainable,” says the BOI.
Based on various surveys, the Philippines is anywhere from the third to the sixth country in the world with the largest English-speaking population. We can’t claim to be native English speakers as much as we would like to, but our talent pool can speak, read and write in this language even at a rudimentary level.
Japan Times columnist Amy Chavez wrote recently of how, during a visit to the Philippines, she was impressed that even people who had never stepped outside the country were fluent in English. Having both English and Filipino as official languages does not mean that everyone understands or speaks English, “but the exposure to the language is so great that those who do speak it can communicate quite fluently,” she added.
The old Bilingual Medium of Instruction policy did more to erode than elevate our competency in the English language to globally acceptable standards. Thankfully, we now have the Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education (MTBMLE) language teaching component embedded in the new K-to-12 curriculum. Education Undersecretary Dina Ocampo-Cristobal explains that this evidence-based language acquisition policy enables early-grade learners to express themselves in class in a language that they already know (i.e., the mother tongue).
Helping young learners master their mother tongue significantly heightens their competency to acquire the globally dominant English language. The Department of Education itself recognizes that English proficiency is a competitive edge that previous generations of Filipinos used to enjoy. Sadly, there is no denying that many of today’s high school or even college graduates have difficulty in expressing their thoughts clearly and logically in English, in Filipino, or sometimes even in their mother tongue. However, it is almost certain that graduates of the new K-to-12 curriculum with MTBMLE will be better prepared for the challenges of the 21st-century workplace.
But what about today’s graduates and job-seekers?
In his article titled “Countries with the Best Business English,” Kenneth Rapoza, a contributing writer of Forbes magazine, cites a Mckinsey & Company study showing that only 13 percent of graduates from emerging countries are suitable for employment in global companies, and that the No. 1 reason is lack of English skills.
Statistics from the IT & Business Process Association of the Philippines (Ibpap) show a hiring hit rate of 8-10 percent, closely resembling the Mckinsey & Company study, mostly for the same reason (i.e., lack of proficiency in Business English). Furthermore, the Department of Science and Technology’s competency mapping of 20,000 new college graduates vis-à-vis 3,000 new hires using Ibpap’s industry-grade Global Competency Assessment Tool conclusively shows that the widest competency gap between what the IT-business process management industry needs and what our graduates have is in English proficiency (29 percent). The basic skills of the top 25 percent of students are only 9 percent higher than the average demand of the IT-BPM sector.
To address this issue, Ibpap has its advanced English proficiency training or AdEPT, a blended learning approach wherein Business English concepts learned in the classroom are reinforced through constant practice using an online tool. Master trainers Zoe Diaz de Rivera and Gino Caliwagan have been busily conducting AdEPT classes for the faculty of a number of public and private universities for the past three years, and they hope to implement AdEPT as widely as possible.
The fact remains, however, that employers still turn away many of our youth because their English skills are below par, despite the Philippines being a country where the English language is deeply entrenched in local culture.
A white paper from the Human Capital Institute and GlobalEnglish titled “Bridging the Talent Crisis created by a New Global Reality” gives us an idea why. It says: “The problem is larger than linguistic skills in English. Being able to conjugate a verb doesn’t translate to the ability to be successful at one’s job.
“Today’s global teams require proficiency in Business English, which embraces the additional skill sets of presentations, meetings, negotiations and conference calls. It also involves topics related to business functions, such as marketing and finance, as well as topics related to business sectors, such as banking and pharmaceuticals.
“The size of the skill gap is huge. When 70 percent of your global workforce speaks English as a second language, communication across global teams can be tricky and frustrating—even counterproductive. Every global company today is composed of an untold number of very smart employees with cutting-edge knowledge who simply are unable to contribute meaningfully to their global teams.
“Evidence continues to mount that poor English proficiency is fueling—at best—misunderstandings and misalignment across global operations. At worst, so many mistakes are made and delays caused, that productivity plummets destructively.”
Butch Hernandez (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of the Eggie Apostol Foundation and education lead for talent development at Ibpap.
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