Language and skills gaps damaging exporting

There are growing concerns that lack of foreign language skills and how to take products and services overseas are holding back firms from taking the initial plunge into exporting, according to a new survey.

In a poll of 4,500 businesses the British Chambers of Commerce also found that there is a major shortfall in language skills generally within Britain’s business community, although it found increasing numbers of firms selling abroad.

The BCC is calling for additional support for companies involved in overseas trade as well as encouragement for people to learn extra languages either at school or in the workplace.

The BCC identified gaps in commercial knowledge such as finance, marketing and sales continuing to impede firms’ progress. Nearly 60 per cent of non-exporting companies felt they did not have a suitable product or service – down from 76 per cent last year. Manufacturing, IT and media businesses highlighted the biggest skills shortages.

The organisation wants export skills to be at the very heart of business education – especially managing finances, using cross-border supply chains and understanding legal and bureaucratic requirements. Business degrees should include compulsory modules on international trade.

More than six out of ten non-exporters see lack of proficiency in languages as key barriers to trading abroad. The survey found that even those business people who had language skills did not speak well enough to conduct business deals. The BCC is urging the government to revise the national curriculum so that studying a foreign language is compulsory until AS Level.

“We know that exporting is crucial for the success of the UK economy, so it is encouraging to see that the percentage of exporting businesses within our membership has increased,” said BCC director general John Longworth.

“However more can and should be done to help businesses take the first step towards exporting their goods and services. The overseas market may seem daunting to a non-exporter, but the rewards that these companies get in return can be outstanding, as I see first-hand from the successful businesses that I meet every day. Our message is always ‘have a go’, but we do believe there is more that the government can do to help get more businesses thinking globally - a crucial requirement of the 21st century age we live in.”