Bilingualism a Key to Addressing Changing Workforce

Universities looking to ensure their students have the skills to succeed in a 21st century workforce should take a look at their foreign language departments as one means of accomplishing this objective.

Our first NIU Dialogue on Global Competitiveness, released this month, highlights the emphasis employers in the Northern Illinois region place on a college graduate's ability to communicate in a language other than English -- and how this emphasis will change in the future.

Graduates who are truly bilingual may ultimately have a leg up on those who communicate only in English. In fact, in five years, almost half of our regional employers (49 percent) say they will actively seek employees with bilingual backgrounds, up from roughly one-third today. Over half -- 54.2 percent -- of the 143 not-for-profit organizations that participated in the survey indicated they would actively seek bilingual applicants, as well. While this is only one region in one state, the Northern Illinois region encompasses Chicago and is one of the most vibrant economies in the United States. Further, almost nine out of 10 respondents (89.3 percent) see benefits that bilingual employees can deliver today.

We at NIU have long considered diversity, understanding and respect for different cultures to be integral to the college experience and key to students taking their place as culturally literate citizens in an increasingly globalized economy. And, after surveying 244 regional employers, we know that this is a premise that not only intuitively makes sense, but also can lead to career success.

What's the most important second language in our region? Not surprisingly, our survey found it to be Spanish, given the rising number of Hispanic residents in Illinois -- reflected in the high growth rate of Hispanic high school graduates. The focus on Spanish may be due to the representation of not-for-profits in our sample, as many of these organizations serve Hispanic communities. Other languages cited as important include Polish (again not a surprise given the large Polish population in Chicago) and Mandarin (increasingly relevant to those regional businesses looking for closer trade relationships with China).

Employers are looking to us -- college educators -- to help them source bilingual employment candidates and prepare them for the world of work. More than half of our respondents want us to put a greater emphasis on learning foreign languages. Employers are looking for more direct engagement from universities -- almost 40 percent of respondents cited the need for greater university outreach to employers looking for bilingual job candidates. This fits well into NIU's "triangle model" of linking faculty and students with the outside world.

Our school launched a program called Celebrating Bilingualism, through which truly bilingual students have an opportunity to pick up 12 credit hours in a rigorous certification process. The program works on several levels -- and it helps accelerate graduation, thereby reducing the cost of college. Our survey shows that more than two out of five employers believe it is important that universities provide this kind of certification process. Further, more than three-fourths of respondents (77.1 percent) would be more favorably disposed toward hiring an individual who has university certification in a language, rather than hiring an individual with no university certification.

The 21st century workforce is already causing universities to rethink course offerings to align with the need for global citizenship. We must get beyond "Only English Spoken Here".