Mind the language gap, says UKinbound

A report released by UKinbound reveals a growing language skills gap facing the UK tourism industry, caused by a combination of Brexit and the decline of language training.

Research by Canterbury Christ Church University highlights the current lack of capacity in the UK’s education system to meet the shortfall in higher level language skills which UKinbound says “are badly needed by the UK’s inbound tourism industry”.

Tourism organisations have been largely reliant on European nationals for their technical and ‘soft’ language skills – and since the Brexit referendum, concerns have risen about the loss of many of these employees.

Approximately 130,000 European Union nationals left the UK in the year to September 2017– the highest number since 2008.

The report also highlights a sharp decline in the number of young people studying a foreign language – partly thanks to changes to government policy since 2002.

Combined with a lack of awareness of career paths for language graduates in the tourism and hospitality sector, this decline means there is a widening language skills gap in the sector.

Deirdre Wells, UKinbound chief executive, said: “The UK is currently the fifth most visited country in the world and our inbound tourism industry in 2017 contributed an estimated £25 billion to the UK economy.

“Those working in tourism need to be able to communicate effectively with their international visitors and our tour operators, in particular, need employees who can communicate confidently and negotiate contracts with overseas operators and suppliers.

“The industry currently employs large numbers of workers from the European Union to fulfil these roles, but our members are reporting that many of their EU employees are starting to return home.

“They are struggling to find replacements from within the British workforce, predominantly due to their lack of advanced language skills.

“This report clearly shows that the country needs leadership from the very highest levels to address this impending language crisis, to ensure the tourism industry continues to provide world class customer service and remains competitive in the global marketplace.”

Dr Karen Thomas, director of the Tourism and Events Research Hub, at Canterbury Christ Church University, added: “The uncertainty of the Brexit negotiations appears to have pushed the tourism and hospitality sectors to a critical point, where they not only have to consider the valuable role of EU workers, but also need to evaluate the potential of home-grown talent to meet the needs of the future inbound tourism industry.

“This research is particularly timely given the body of evidence which has been developing about the decline of home-grown linguists and the potential this has to impact on UK productivity and competitiveness in a post-Brexit landscape.

“For the UK inbound tourism industry, where language skills and intercultural understanding are crucial in business and consumer-facing roles, the findings of this study raise challenging issues to be addressed by a wide range of stakeholders.”

Just 34% of UKinbound’s members had employed graduates with language skills in the last five years, but 65% of members are now considering employing graduates with language skills in the next five years.

The report findings coincide with the launch of UKinbound’s campaign to highlight the contribution of tourism from EU countries to the UK economy, and to impress on the government the urgency of securing either no, or minimal, barriers to inbound tourism from the EU after Brexit.

Pictured are Wells and UKinbound members, with Nigel Huddleston MP and Sandy Martin MP to showcase the value of regional tourism at the Houses of Parliament.