ACCENT CHALLENGES AND THE TALENT GAP
Even though we can’t see or touch a person’s voice, it’s arguably the aspect of an individual that makes the strongest connection between two people.
Perhaps that’s why scientists are trying to recreate the sounds of our earliest ancestors (Discover Magazine, Special Issue 07/08 2012, Bring Ancient Voices Back to Life by Jill Neimark) and are hurriedly recording the sounds of animals on the verge of extinction (www.whatismissing.net). The fact is, hearing someone’s (or something’s) voice creates a personal connection not otherwise made.
Perhaps this is also why many common expressions include the word, ‘voice’. For example, there’s ‘to speak with one voice’, ‘the voice of reason’, ‘to be a lone voice in the wilderness’, ‘to raise one’s voice’, ‘to voice a concern’, ‘the voice of dissent’, ‘a voice of sanity’, and the list could continue ad infinitium.
Giving Workforce a “Voice”
Giving each member of our workforce ‘a voice’ isn’t limited to topics of fair representation and equal opportunity. It includes initiatives that ensure employees have the communication skills needed to effectively engage, contribute, and lead. This has never been more important than in today’s knowledge economy.
Globalization and technological innovation have brought about systemic changes in the world economy that, as a result, have created a veritable war for talent. It may not be obvious to everyone, but the U.S talent gap is real, big, and growing by the moment. According to a recent Manpower survey, only 27% of senior human resource managers said they felt their company had the talent it needed to implement its business strategy (The Economist, The Future of Jobs: Got Talent?).
One of the biggest reasons for the disconnect between available jobs and qualified workers is that, for the first time in history, it’s not looking likely the number of workers entering the U.S. labor force will replace the skills soon to be leaving. Baby boomers, who are en route to retirement, account for more than 50% of our current workforce and 25% of workers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines, the foundation of a knowledge economy. That leaves a lot of soon to be empty seats in fields that are often key to company growth and global competition. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security recognizes this as such a serious problem, they’ve recently announced an expanded list of STEM degree programs.
There are two ways for an organization to build human capacity, either bring it in from outside the organization or develop it from within. Regardless of the strategy taken (often it’s a combination of the two), once their key talent is in place, organizations often face another equally significant problem: how to fully engage and maximize every constituent’s human potential. This is not a trivial issue. According to a recent Gallup survey of what it considers “world class” companies, employees expressed their level of engagement in their work as follows:
- 67% fully engaged
- 26% not engaged
- 7% actively disengaged
Corporations are solving this problem in a number of ways. One is by building leadership from within, whereby employees are incentivized to demonstrate excellence and capability, resulting in an “everyone wins situation”. Another is by engaging employees in collaborative initiatives involving decision making, strategic planning, and joint projects across and within areas of expertise. Given today’s teleconferencing platforms, these kinds of collaborative initiatives should be a piece of cake, right? Hardly!
Why isn’t this working? It’s about communication. Effective communication. According to the most recent data by the U.S. Dept. of Labor (2010), 15.8% of the U.S. civilian labor force is foreign born. This leads to communication challenges the like of which we’ve never before experienced. Imagine just about any conference room (or conference call for that matter), and you’ll likely envision a global workforce communicating, or trying to communicate, in one common language separated by a myriad of accents. Accent barriers have real consequences; for the non-native English speaker, who’s often inundated with the ubiquitous and often debilitating questions, “What? What did you say?”, and for the organization. The “Can You Repeat That?” syndrome leads to communication barriers which impact:
- Succession Planning for High Potentials
- Ability to Form Strategic Alliances
- Client Facing Interactions
- Business Development Opportunities
- Engagement and Collaboration Levels
- Team Productivity
There are several solutions to this challenge. One is a professional development tool commonly known as accent reduction. Other names include accent neutralization, accent modification, and American accent training. While the industry has many names, the objective is the same: to eliminate language barriers while maintaining unique cultural identities. Accent reduction provides non-native English speakers the repertoire of articulation techniques needed to pronounce sounds in English that do not occur in other languages. If done right, people will still have an accent, what they won’t have is a communication barrier. Instead, an organization’s diverse workforce will communicate its professional expertise with clarity, confidence, and ease.
An accent reduction initiative combined with accent comprehension training supports better listening skills for the growing heterogeneous workforce of the 21st century, while improving productivity and the bottom line. Knowledge workers, in particular, rely on speaking and hearing to respond to market and business challenges in real time. They can’t afford the “what did you say” delays and communication inaccuracies that are negatively impacting many large and small organizations.
In a competitive economy, what can be better than ‘giving voice’ to novel ideas, innovations, and solutions?