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November 08, 2005

The Economics of English

Michael Mandel

Does India have enough English-speaking workers? Here's an interesting comment from an Indian columnist, Sucheta Dalal. She writes:

The BPO and IT industries today absorb so much of the smart, technically qualified and eminently employable talent that there is a serious shortage of people for other, not-so-paying, smaller businesses who also need similar skill sets. Contrary to the bleeding-heart view about BPO employees being stuck in stressful and monotonous jobs, those earning high call-centre salaries are unwilling to consider less-paying but more challenging employment that requires aptitude, learning and slower initial growth.

She then goes on to say:

it is necessary to address an important differentiator that has already emerged in the job market today. It is the earning difference between those who are conversant with the English language and those who aren??.

Salary differences between equally qualified (non-professional/technical) candidates can be as high as 400 to 500 per cent. In fact, the more fancied jobs in airlines, hotels, media, banks and financial services only to those who know English, the rest are forced into less fancied assignments.

Ironically enough, the wide gap in earning starts from jobs where literacy levels are less important; for instance employment as peons, drivers, courier and delivery staff, sales assistants, counter staff and waiters.

The best jobs with the upmarket shopping malls, multiational fast-food chains and tony restaurants go to those who can speak English along with the mandatory fluency in local languages. The job market in the services sector is likely to expand furiously as malls, multiplexes, food courts, and large retail chains expand operations across India, moving from the cities to larger towns. This growth will only accelerate if the government eventually permits Foreign Direct Investment in the Retail Sector, letting in large retail chains such as Wal-Mart.

Unfortunately, there is no concerted effort as yet by the corporate sector, NGOs or even social organisations to help improve their English-speaking skills and confidence levels to prepare for the coming boom. Consequently, there is already a serious shortage of ??mployable; human resources in the service sector.

My own effort to help a young girl, desperate to ??improve her English’’ through a formal programme in Mumbai drew a blank. Her big ambition is to land a sales job in a smart food or retail chain. I found that the few private tutors available are astonishingly expensive. On the other hand, I found it much easier to sponsor her for a basic and inexpensive orientation course in the use of computers that was run by an NGO called Pratham.

The Chinese apparently hired football stadiums to teach the English language and enhance employment opportunities.

In India, language chauvinism bars frank discussion or an acknowledgement that English is now the global language of commerce. In his Independence Day address in August 2004, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam talked about the need to achieve 100 per cent literacy by increasing our education expenditure. The bigger challenge in the coming years will be to adapt our school and college curricula to meet the demands of changing society, job market and individual aspirations.

This will mean inclusion of language skills, computer literacy and vocational training at the school level. That in turn will require investment in finding and employing better trained and better paid teachers to prepare students for a better India.

Are we even making a beginning in that direction?

04:25 PM

Trade

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I'm Indian.

I can tell you that if one goes to India and interacts with a large number of locals, it will readily become apparent that in many average families, the parents age 40 and over don't speak English, don't use the internet, etc. but the children age 10-12 do speak English and are quite tech-savvy.

If only 50 million adults are *highly* fluent in English in India today (this excludes the large number of people with just partial fluency), then that number will be 300 million in just 15 years.

Plus, India now puts out 3 million college graduates a year, compared to just 1 million/yr a decade ago. Almost all of these 3 million have good English proficiency, but take years to replace the older generation of non-English speakers.

Time is on the side of wider and deeper English adoption.

Posted by: Kartik at November 8, 2005 08:40 PM

Sucheta Dalal is certainly one of the finest writers in India.

Yes, it is true that in India there has been quite a lot of wage differential between the English speaking and English non speaking.

It is understandable that while doing business on an international level - you do need english capabilities. But it is really surprising that even when you walk into a shopping mall in Bangalore we need english speaking attendants. For what? very well one can manage with the local languages or the widely spoken Hindi.

The fact is that today most of the people have realised that in order for their children to compete in the world you need differentiators - and English is one big one.

The families start teaching English to their children as the first language so that they are not handicapped in life.

As she has mentioned that with the boom in retail industry we will need english speaking people - the fact is that as long as people are available with english skills, fine. Beyond that people even with local language skills will be welcome.

Comparing the China and India cases is also inappropriate as far as english training is concerned. The training in China is driven largely by the Olympics and expects all citizens to understand a smattering of english. But in the case of India, we are not catering to any surge in demand for english on international level.

Instead of focusing on a language - it will be better to train people on vocational skills, and entrepreneurial skills - giving them the life skills to be the employers and owners of business rather than being the employees of the businesses.

Regards

Subir

Posted by: Subir at November 9, 2005 03:10 AM

Why do employers in India(service sector) want English speaking employees? I think it is the general notion held by a large majority of the population that an English speaking person essentially is smarter than a non english speaking Indian, so much so that majority of non english speaking indians live with an inferiority complex of not being able to speak english.

True, that the best education in India is imparted in English medium schools or colleges but is quality of education really a must for service sector jobs like in a mall or a multiplex.

Just to cater to customers of the english speaking breed(who can also understand and speak local languages), employers have to ignore potentially smarter non english speaking indians.

True, we must develop English speaking abilities in our people so that they are competitive at an international level but we need not consider it a must in the Indian scenario to the extent that we lose on potential talent from a large part of our population which doesn not speak english.

In future, India will need English speaking people as well as talented people who may not necessarily speak english but are intelligent and smart. They can cater to the large Indian market where majority of consumers should not mind foregoing their english speaking right( at times used only for snob value )in return for better service.

Posted by: Rakhi at February 9, 2006 08:56 AM

One has to differenciate between UK English and US English.India has to change to American style.Reward shall be greater.Teach how vowels and consonanants are produced.Phonetics art.Easy as Indians recieves soft spoken pronaciations as in UK.Phonetics, Indians have to imbibe as American speaks.Consider easy for all the states to understand and speak.

Posted by: Ray Patel at February 10, 2006 06:53 PM


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