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’t.
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 ‘employable; 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?

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