Language Skills

Yesterday, for the first time, a large consulting company called to let me know they could not pursue my application further specifically because of language skills. Incidentally, one of the questions students ask frequently to all visiting companies is about whether language skills are important. It’s the same question I receive from prospective students as well. A simple yes or no answer is boring, so here’s an analysis.

For a moment, let’s consider MBA students as production factors which the companies acquire from labour market. The best production factors are those which add the best value to the customers, not the hiring company. Value is added through previous experience, knowledge gained in MBA, soft skills and most importantly, how these qualities are used during interaction with the customer! Interaction means communication with the customer. Let’s look at the customer base of the usual suspects (The big consulting firms based in US/UK). In Belgium, this customer base is made up of public utilities, energy, retail, financial services and telecommunication industry. Companies in all these sectors are large local players whose customers are local players as well. So, although the large consulting firms are based out of US, their customer base and their customers’ customers are very local. The entire value chain converses in French/Flemish, which means without language skills, its impossible to add significant value. After all, a large part of the consulting process is Q&A and surveys.world_language_map

Is all hope lost? Of course not. This only means that most customer facing positions are out of scope for an international student without local language skills. But these are not the only career opportunities, there are other functions such as Finance and controlling, HR, IT, Treasury, partly supply chain and even general management whose customers are mostly internal to an organization. So, assuming that the MBA candidates seek opportunities within in Western Europe, the target would be for the corporate functions in companies whose internal communication is in English. Good news is that there are plenty of European HQs in Brussels; most of these companies conduct internal communication in English. Bad news is that here’s where the economic crisis comes into the equation. Most of the supporting functions are what we call “overhead”. Supporting functions are not are not direct expenses. In an environment in which credit is hard to come by, the last thing companies will want to do is increase their working capital requirements by increasing overhead costs. So, it’s difficult to find opportunities, but not impossible. After all, I’m sure large companies realise that heavy regulation is on its way (similar to SOX) as soon as the credit situation improves and they will surely need the “supporting staff”. The best time to find jobs is when all companies have lots of money and then the government creates additional work like during the Enron scandal :)

The other worry right now is the protectionist attitude in EU and US resulting directly from the heavy stimulus, which governments are pumping into the economy. For example, Bank of America took back its job offers to international MBA students in the US. I have not heard similar news from EU, but I’d be surprised if Fortis or GM will not receive “instructions” to create employment in local population in exchange of the capital they receive from Governments. So, is language skill important? Certainly! especially in today’s economic situation.

Finally, I hear and see many students attempt to shore up language skills during the year through extra sessions. This might help, but does not in any way provide a competitive advantage. Here’s an example. Last week, we had a talk by the VP of a large software company. She is currently in sabbatical and has been a full time student of Flemish language for the past one year. During the break she said that Flemish people think she is too direct while she thinks she is polite. The reason is not because of what she says; it’s because of her language skills. If my English was basic and I was asking somebody to reconsider a request, I’d probably say “Reconsider this request, please”, with better knowledge of English, I might choose to say “Could you kindly reconsider this request. I’d truly appreciate it”. The meaning is the same, but one is too direct and the other is too polite :)

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