by Matthew John Del Mundo, Hawai’i Language Roadmap Initiative Intern
An inspiring call to action was delivered at the 3rd annual Hawai‘i Language Roadmap Symposium. Representatives from workforce sectors across the state convened at the East-West Center’s Imin International Conference Center on September 12, 2017. The informative morning session included an “Education Panel”, an “Employer Panel”, and a keynote speech delivered by Dr. Richard Brecht, co-Director of the American Councils Research Center, entitled “Building America’s Multilingual Workforce: Why? How? Who? When?”.
In his keynote address, Dr. Brecht highlighted two main points in regards to the demand for employees with proficiency in languages in addition to English within the local and national workforce. First, Brecht illustrated the growing disparity between the demands of U.S. employers actively seeking fluent entry-level and high-skilled applicants and the reality of the current narrative. He cited the 2014 Global Talent Survey conducted by the Michigan State University College Employment Research Institute, which reported that 93% of employers value “employees able to work effectively with customers, clients, and businesses from a range of different countries and culture.” However, only 50-65% of these same employers value multicultural or overseas experience, with 41% implementing a hiring preference for multilingual applicants and only a staggering 11% actively seeking entry-level employees with fluent languages skills. Second, Dr. Brecht highlighted the pattern of growth for bilingual jobs in the last decade. For example, the U.S. online job listings for bilingual workers grew from 240,000 job postings in 2010 to approximately 630,000 job postings in 2015. With the major uptick in the demand for bilingual employees well documented, Dr. Brecht spent the majority of his talk on finding a common ground for a solution between employers, educators, administrators, and applicants.
Upon conclusion of his eye-opening talk, there was a time for questions from the audience. Although his address was directed to the educators, employers, and administrators in the audience, I could not help but think about the relevance of his comments to my fellow students across the nation. Since, as the Roadmap intern, I was the only student in the audience of invited participants, I asked Dr. Brecht if university students will ever have an opportunity to collaborate with decision makers, educators, and employers in hopes of making a positive impact on equipping the next generation of college students to be bilingual and biliterate. In other words, there are currently students studying in higher education that already understand the value of speaking more than one language and applying it in their future careers. Are there clear steps available to these students to be part of a solution for bridging the gap between the demand and the actual need for bilingual employees in Hawaii’s workforce?
Dr. Brecht’s keynote speech specifically addressed the individuals with influence because they make decisions that will impact organizations, hiring processes, and education curriculum and programs. The reality he highlighted was that people understand the need and value of hiring bilingual and biliterate employees. A problem that exists is that employers and educators are settling at the level of “understanding”. His call to action is challenging leaders in business and education to transition from simply understanding the need to emphasizing its demand in hiring processes, required skills of employees, and learning outcomes for students.
When asked about the role college students might play, he responded, “I don’t think it’s really going to be easy for someone like you [a university student] to do something unless the people who teach you, surround you, and are responsible for your education reach out to you and do something with that.” Dr. Brecht’s answer reflected this sentiment when he stated, “There are no mechanisms, easy ones – you’re going to have to make them.” Although Dr. Brecht mentioned there are currently no effective mechanisms in place for students to gain traction on finding solutions, he encourages students to continue to make their voices heard. He further remarked that change won’t happen “until you provoke the [decision makers] into action with you.” He concluded his response by reminding the next generation of students to maintain a mindset of further learning. “At your age, all you have to believe is that you don’t have to take it anymore… You can actually lead and do something about it, but you have to take that mindset” that you can work with fellow students and engage educators within your department, college, or university.”
While I struggle to undertake a leadership role in initiating conversations, I have spoken to several students who already have taken the initiative in being actively multilingual. These students are taking initiative despite institutional obstacles, such as finding that language proficiency developed outside the classroom may be undervalued in the current system. Our generation of language learners has a lot of work to do, but these committed individuals should serve as models for us. Most importantly, they demonstrate that the next generation of college graduates is growing to understand the value biliteracy and bilingualism will bring to their future careers.
On the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa campus, there are many students eager and driven to learn different languages and cultures. These students desire to be proficient in speaking and writing, in translating, and in interpreting; and they enjoy taking the necessary courses to achieve these goals. Although Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Tagalog are the prominent second languages spoken in the Hawaiian Islands, I was encouraged to hear students have a genuine interest in learning languages from around the world. While students are at different stages of their journey towards biliteracy and bilingualism, many of these individuals have a similar motivation: connect with people of a different culture, communicate in their native tongue, and create opportunities to expand one’s reach. I interviewed two students to gain insight into their respective journeys learning a different language and culture while at Mānoa.
Learning different languages creates opportunities for individuals to travel the world and experience new cultures. To fully realize the benefits of living in a different culture, individuals must import their overseas experience as they transition back into their home culture. Garret Weishaar is studying Communications at UH Mānoa and is entering his final year of undergraduate studies. Two years ago, Weishaar took a leave of absence from school in order to fully immerse himself in Chile. Although he had no prior experience with Spanish, he returned to UH fluent after living and traveling in South America for nine months. As he reminisced on his experiences two years ago, he highlighted his decision not to go the traditional route of studying abroad at a Spanish speaking university. Instead he chose to live with host families, tagging along on their jobs, and traveling to neighboring countries. He concluded his interview with a simple quote, “Living in a different country and speaking the native language is a skill that I will cherish for the rest of my life. I am excited to see how I can apply it into the future.”
Esther Arakawa is entering her third year at UH and is supplementing her major in Travel Industry Management with a minor in Japanese. Born and raised in Hawai‘i, Esther fell in love with the opportunity to welcome people of different cultures to the islands and serve them in their native tongue. I asked her what motivated her to study in Japan for a whole year. Her response was, “I have always desired to work in the tourism industry after I complete my undergraduate degree. Once I begin my career, I hope to exemplify the spirit of ‘Aloha’ to those that visit the islands. One way that I may make them feel at home when they visit the islands is to experience their culture and way of life. My year long journey in Japan is not just for studying abroad, but to further equip myself for a lifetime of service.”
These two individuals illustrate how students on the campus of UH are seeking to experience different cultures and learn their languages. So in response to Dr. Brecht, “Yes, there may not be any current mechanisms in place for students to make a lasting impact on bridging the gap between the demand and supply of bilingual employees, but students can be effective in educating their fellow students on the value bilingualism and biliteracy bring to their future careers.” These committed individuals should serve as models for us.
About the author: Matthew Del Mundo is a senior at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa pursuing a major in English. During his free time, he likes to explore the island, watch Netflix, and eat dinner with his roommates. His ultimate desire is to travel the world on various mission trips helping the less fortunate and instilling hope into their lives. Matthew also enjoys mentoring the next generation of college students as he tutors high school students in Math and English for his part-time job.