In a survey of members of the Association of Language Companies (ALC), carried out by ALC and Slator, 79% of respondents said they were facing a talent shortage in critical roles, such as sales and project management.
At SlatorCon Remote November 2023, Slator Managing Director Andrew Smart surveyed attendees at a panel on the language industry’s talent crunch, asking enterprises and language service providers (LSPs), in turn, how easy it is to find workers.
According to the enterprise poll, 40% of respondents said it is “very difficult” and 33% said it is “difficult.” Just over a quarter (26%) called it “sufficiently easy.” Notably, no one said it was “very easy.”
LSPs have a similarly hard time, it seems. Three percent find it “very easy” and 16% “sufficiently easy,” while almost half (48%) called it “difficult.” Nearly a third (32%) described it as “very difficult.”
“I think we’re seeing a great challenge across both sides of the fence,” Smart remarked.
What is behind the language industry’s apparent talent shortage? Panelist Charles Campbell, Founder and CEO of TBO and its staffing and recruitment offshoot, tbotalent, said many factors are involved, but even he was surprised by the figure Smart cited from the ALC survey. “That is a remarkably high number,” he noted.
Giulia Greco, Head of Localization at Shopify, pointed out that employers’ needs have shifted significantly over the past five to seven years.
“The people are still here, but they don’t have the skill set that we actually need as employers,” Greco said. “They’re not advancing as rapidly as the environment is advancing.”
At the same time, fewer people are entering the field. Subway’s Globalization Services Manager Carrie Fischer added that newbies might be discouraged from entering the language industry due to misinformation, including sentiments that AI has already taken over all translation jobs. Meanwhile, the language industry may shut out interested prospective workers prematurely.
“Now, if you look at jobs, you need years of experience, certifications, management skills, etc.,” Fischer said. “Recent grads don’t have that. And we aren’t seeing the potential in a lot of these people, in my opinion.”
Fischer’s top three “musts” for new hires, Smart said, are a “positive attitude, flexibility, and an open mindset” — qualities that can transcend degrees earned and years on the job.
Greco also cited the ability to take feedback as very important, adding, “Good people want the feedback because they want to know how they can get better.”
Investing in People
Beyond giving applicants a chance, even without a perfect résumé, Smart pointed out that Shopify’s growth- and training-focused mindset has helped the company retain talent.
Greco explained that Shopify has built a strong brand that attracts top-tier prospective employees. Within the company, she said, “culture comes from the top.” This includes an expectation, expressed as “a little bit of pressure,” that employees will continue exploring, learning, and improving each year.
Shopify also invests in training programs — thus absorbing the cost for employees — that foster workers’ abilities and grow them into other roles with enhanced skill sets.
“Otherwise, people feel stale and leave,” Greco explained. “It’s such a shame when people end up leaving […] you are losing all that tribal knowledge and the skillset and the relationships that they have built so far that could be transferred and used in a different capacity.”
Support for these training programs solves another issue: the gap between the ivory tower and the industry’s needs. Greco added, “The industry cannot afford to wait for academia to catch up.”
Campbell agreed that this gap can make it difficult to find new talent. Instead, he recommended that employers focus on achieving the highest possible staff retention. One strategy is enhancing employee benefits, namely flexibility and PTO, including parental leave.
Hiring for soft skills and training for more technical skills creates a strong foundation, but the question of where, exactly, to find talent remains.
Fischer, a self-described “army of one,” has to rely on outside help, often finding linguistic talent in unexpected ways. “Three of my linguists are former Subway employees who wanted a side gig,” Fischer explained, adding that although they are not professional translators, they are native speakers of the target languages living in the target countries. “But they know the Subway-isms. They know the tone, the voice, the brand. I’ve been working with them for years and it’s been a great arrangement.”
Campbell had similar experiences toward the end of the 1980s when hiring was constrained by physical location.
“If we were lucky, we’d get someone who had been in the military, or maybe lived abroad, or was an immigrant, or had been a missionary,” he said. But in the digital age, “we’re privileged to a certain degree in our industry by this ability to hire the best talent wherever they are.”
He encouraged attendees to think globally and build global teams — like Subway, which is spread across seven international locations. These might include a mix of employees and independent contractors, depending on the legal constraints in each country and professionals’ needs and wants.
“There isn’t a universal talent shortage,” Campbell said. “To quote Winnie Heh of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, there are people out there. Sometimes we just have to pay more than what the budget allows.”
For those who missed SlatorCon Remote November 2023 in real-time, recordings will be available via Slator’s Pro and Enterprise plans in due course.