Consider these stats for a moment: In Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, the service sector employs nearly half of the country’s local workforce. In Thailand, nearly 60% of the country’s GDP is generated by tourism and export-oriented production. Vietnam, one of ASEAN’s fastest growing markets and a rising manufacturing power, counts the United States among its top trading partners. The Philippines’ business process outsourcing (BPO) sector, a key pillar of the country’s economy, employs over a million people.
While these numbers attest to the potential of these countries, they also point to another common theme: Every one of these sectors, notable for fuelling growth in the region, are emblematic of an increasingly globalised world where English has become the lingua franca, or common language, of governments as well as business, and nearly two billion people.
An essential skill for the 21st century workplace
Most corporations, especially those that conduct business in multiple countries and employ people from diverse backgrounds and cultures, require their personnel to be fluent in English to facilitate communication across their operations.
While some companies have informally adopted English as their preferred language of business, others have gone a step further to declare it their official language, just like some governments in ASEAN - a regional economic bloc whose members speak hundreds of local dialects - have done.
The reasons for embracing English range from the commercial (for instance, conducting business with a native English-speaking client) to fostering a sense of belonging in a global workplace that employs people belonging to various nationalities for whom English maybe the only common tongue to communicate and collaborate in.
It’s no surprise then that employers around the world prefer people who are at the very least conversant if not fully fluent in the language. As Shirley Puspitawati, Educational Consultant, BPK Penabur and Academic General Manager, Kipina Kids Indonesia, notes:
“When we are thinking about essential skills for the 21st century workplace, communications is an important skill for an employee to have along with information literacy, collaboration, social skills and creativity - all of which require English. And in a world where countries are freely doing business with each other, English will be required more than ever before.”
The key to employability in Southeast Asia
For learners continuing to ponder questions such as whether English is truly a useful skill to have in order to advance your careers, they will find that the answer is an unequivocal yes.
As Puspitawati notes, it’s elemental. Because, starting with the ability to read a job advert to understanding the instructions for subsequent tests and interviews – most of which will be worded only in English – prospective employees will need to know the language.
"Most of the application forms that I have seen so far in Indonesia, particularly, will ask for your English proficiency level. They will also ask if you have taken formal courses or graduated from an international study programme,” she says. “And this would be the case not only in my school, but in other industries."
More importantly, knowing the language can offer a crucial edge to candidates vying for jobs in a crowded field of applicants. For, while the region’s traditional services sector along with a fast-growing digital economy are together expected to generate millions of jobs in the coming years, Southeast Asia is also projected to be home to a fast-growing working-age population, which means competition for jobs is bound to heat up.
English as a key tool for employability assumes even greater importance in the emerging markets of Southeast Asia where economies are transitioning away from agriculture and manufacturing-driven growth to service-oriented, knowledge-based sectors. A range of industries - including education, healthcare, hospitality and tourism - that form the backbone of most economies in the region, require fluency in English, points out Puspitawati.
“In Indonesia, and across Southeast Asia, these sectors would like to hire people who can speak English well,” she says. “For instance, in Indonesia’s health care sector, which is welcoming a growing number of foreign medical professionals, there is an acute need for English-speaking staff. Or if you work in public relations and you have to write a press release or make a statement to the global media, you need fluent English.”
As the region grows in stature on the global stage, countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia are encouraging multinational corporations, many of whom already have established sizable operations, to build out their presence, and attracting billions of dollars in fresh foreign investments.
According to a poll conducted by the Singapore Business Federation, the region remains a top destination for global businesses with Vietnam and Indonesia heading the list of preferred destinations. Meanwhile, local businesses are looking to expand into foreign markets, including the broader Asia Pacific region and the rest of the world.
All of this translates to a growing requirement for skilled workers who can speak English fluently. However, with few programmes currently dedicated to preparing learners to function effectively in international markets, talent is hard to come by. Therefore, whoever is fluent in the language will be in high demand and will find themselves at the front of a race for the best jobs that the region’s economic rebound and subsequent long-term growth has to offer.
Not-so-fringe benefits: Higher salaries, career growth
Now that we have established the importance of English for career-minded students and professionals, here’s a look at some of the perks that English-speaking skills confer upon job seekers and how exactly the ability to communicate well in the language can help people grow in their careers.
Now an accomplished teacher and consultant for international schools and English language training institutions in Indonesia, Puspitawati relates her own personal experience to illustrate how English language skills can pave the way for a successful career.
“Fifteen years ago, when I started my career, English was my second language. I forced myself to improve my language skills by being a part of learning communities and interacting closely with native speakers. As my English improved, it enabled me to expand my network and I was offered opportunities to go abroad, which further helped my professional development.”
Along with a greater chance of being picked to represent your organisation at international events, fluency in English also offers a number of tangible benefits. Key among those is better pay.
“First of all, English gives you a better chance of being hired. You are also offered a higher salary, which is among the top benefits,” Puspitawati says. “Then there are the opportunities to grow within the organisation as your employer takes you more seriously because you have demonstrated the initiative to be a lifelong learner.”
For instance, Puspitawati explains, institutions like BPK Penabur regularly train their teachers to acquire greater levels of proficiency in the language by allowing them to participate in courses offered by foreign universities. Once these teachers successfully complete the programme and acquire a professional certificate, they become instantly more attractive to institutions looking to hire well-trained educators, helping them to command higher salaries and build their careers from this position of strength.