Bilinguals: The Talented Workforce for the 21st Century

Bilinguals: The Talented Workforce for the 21st Century
Benefits Bilingual Education Multiculturalism Uncategorized

Human Capital Investment:

Employees who speak more than one language are becoming increasingly important in our workforce.  A recent report by New American Economy shows that the demand for bilingual jobs posted on online search engines have more than doubled over the past 5 years.  The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that Translators and Interpreters will be one of the fastest growing professions in the next several years, with an anticipated 42% growth in the private sector alone.  From a study conducted by Northern Illinois University Center for Government Studies in August, 2015, one third of the businesses surveyed were seeking bilingual employees whereas within the next five years, at least half of those businesses are expected to do so.

The majority of businesses surveyed reported that bilingual skills were:

  • critical for success (Korn/Kerry International Executive Recruiter Index, 2005);
  • important for customer satisfaction and retention,
  • improved business competitiveness
  • enabled businesses to engage with new suppliers and conduct business in other countries. (Study by Northern Illinois University Center for Governmental Studies, August 2015).

Drivers in Demand for Bilinguals in the Workforce:

The key factor in the increase demand for bilinguals in the workforce is primarily the human factor — human engagement and interaction that cannot be automated by machines. The need for high quality human interaction and engagement is important in all levels of business and across industries, especially where high levels of interaction is required across diverse groups of people. Why bilinguals over monolinguals?  Bilinguals provide a more enriched level of engagement with others from diverse backgrounds than can monolinguals.  To better understand this, we have identified three key drivers for the growing demand for bilinguals in the workforce:

  • Growing Immigrant Population
  • Global Economy
  • Cognitive and Social Benefits

These driving forces are not necessarily mutually exclusive; but rather overlap and intersect in multiple facets.

Growing Immigrant Population:

Today, more than one fifth of the families in the United States speaks another language other than English at home.  The majority of those families (13% of U.S. population) speaks Spanish.  However, Mandarin, French, Vietnamese, Arabic and many other languages are also commonly spoken.  In Texas, more than one third of households speak a language other than English, with more than 80% of those families speaking Spanish.

Consequently, the majority of the online job posts for bilinguals often tend to be where the majority of families whose primary language is something other than English live.  To give an example of this, below is the U.S. Census Data for where Spanish speakers live in the United States and the data by state for online job posts for bilinguals (NEA report).  You can see from the data below that the majority of bilingual online job posts are located in states with a larger concentration of Spanish speakers.

The demand for bilingual jobs to serve families whose primary language is other than English are found in a large cross section of industries and across all skill levels.  Predominant industries that seek bilinguals include:

  • Education
    • Demand for teachers is to increase by 13% through 2018, demand bilingual teachers to increase at even a faster rate (
  • Legal
    • Demand in foreign language skills, especially Spanish, is a top trend in hiring legal staff & law enforcement agencies. “Foreign Language Skills See High Demand in Legal Market” by Charles A Volkert at Robert Half, Job Recruitment agency.
  • Medical
    • Patient care and outcome is directly proportional to ability of medical staff and patient to communicate.
  • Banking
    • The highest number of online job postings for bilinguals are now in this sector per the NEA Report.
  • Telecommunications
    • Minority groups are high consumers smart phones and serving this population requires staff with bilingual skills per the NEA Report.
  • Call Centers
    • Up to 20% of staff are bilingual, Society for Human Resources Management
  • Retail
  • Government
  • Construction
  • Social Services

While job demand for bilinguals is increasing across all skill levels, the fastest growing demand is in the those jobs that require a higher skill level.  Please see below from the NEA Report:

The Global Economy:

Global integration across industries and supply chains has increased the demand for a  bilingual and multicultural workforce who can work well with others from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Consequently, Spanish has grown to become an important language in global trade since it is a language that covers a significant global territory, including some of our most important trading partners. For example, enrollment in a popular Spanish language learning program, the Instituto Cervantes, located in 87 cities worldwide, quadrupled between 2003 and 2013. Notwithstanding, China has also become more aggressive in encouraging Spanish as  a second language as China continues to expand its influence in foreign investment and capital in Europe and the Americas (Per the Chinese National Coordinator for Spanish, Lu Jingsheng, at the Foro Internacional del Español, 2015 and China’s Investment in Latin America, David Dollar from Foreign Policy at Brookings).

Spanish is not the only language business and industry leaders are learning.  Many articles have been written highlighting the value of learning Mandarin, French, German and Arabic  for success in the global economy.

How Many Foreign Languages Do Executives Speak?  An interesting website based survey conducted by Korn/Ferry International, an Executive Recruitment Firm based in LA revealed that a significant number of executives speak at least least more than one language.

  • 36% – One language
  • 31% – Two languages
  • 20% – Three languages
  • 9% – Four languages
  • 4% – More than five languages
  • (64% of the 12,562 Executives who responded to the website survey spoke two or more languages)

Cognitive and Social Advantages:

Much has been written on the cognitive and social advantages of being bilingual.  Balanced bilinguals (those who speak more than one language daily and do so in a variety of contexts) demonstrate an advantage in the development of important and highly valued transferable cognitive skills due to the consistent exercising of the brain through code switching between languages.   These transferable cognitive skills include: cognitive load managementproblem solving, sense making, creative thinking, and adaptability. (See below for a list of supporting studies).  They are also the same skills considered to be some of the most important skills needed for our future work force because these skills are essential to success in variety of highly skilled disciplines, such as science, technology, and engineering.

Yet, equally, if not more, important are the essential social skills that bilinguals possess.  Studies reveal that children who are repeatedly exposed to other languages, even if they are not proficient in the other languages, are better at understanding multiple perspectives.

Those who grow up speaking more than one language and whose languages are valued by others have a greater positive self identity, can relate more positively to others from different cultures  and are more likely to pursue higher education (Rebecca Callahan, Assistant Professor of Bilingual Education at U T at Austin, Presentation at Bilingual STEAM event.  Such positive self identity and ability to relate to others are necessary skills for continued self development as well as effective collaboration, communication and negotiation.  Essentially, these skills are the most fundamental skills needed for any job that requires human interaction, which is a key reason why bilinguals (even if they do not use their second language in their profession) are valuable employees.

As employers continue to reap the benefits that bilingual employees bestow, the demand for bilinguals in the workforce will continue to grow.  Currently, bilinguals already receive an increase pay differential that varies from 2 – 20%, depending on the  level of skills and language required ((Study by Northern Illinois University Center for Governmental Studies, August 2015).  Furthermore, research reveals that bilinguals are less likely to be let go by their employers than are their monolingual counterparts during economic downturns (Callahan, R. & Gándara, The Bilingual Advantage: Language, Literacy, and the U.S. Labor Market.).


Society must realize the value that speaking multiple languages bestow, not only in the workforce but in society in general, and in doing so continue to promote language learning and cultural understanding.  How? Educational institutions can foster strong multilingual skills at the prime age for language acquisition through:

  • preschool language enrichment programs,
  • effective dual language programs–beginning in elementary and on through high school so that children leave high school as balanced bi-literate bilinguals,
  • language enrichment programs for children of immigrant families whose language is other than English
  • programs that encourage cross cultural exchanges and greater appreciation for our country’s ethnic and cultural diversity.
  • bilingual enrichment programs in the arts and in STEM related activities.

Community leaders and business leaders can sponsor more programs for community engagement that highlight the value of linguistic and cultural diversity while also fostering cross cultural experiences that serve to unite people.  Leaders can help provide parents with the resources they need to foster strong linguistic skills in more than one language and facilitate smaller scaled programs for meaningful active linguistic engagement.  They can also put pressure on educational institutions and other service providers to ensure that native and non-native linguistic skills, along with cultural appreciation for our  country’s diversity, are supported for all children from all backgrounds.

Policy makers can continue to enact laws and programs that encourage second language instruction and cross cultural appreciation.  Twenty-three states offer, (and more are underway), students a Seal of Biliteracy. The Seal of Biliteracy is awarded to students from specific schools or districts who have demonstrated a level of proficiency in more than one language.  Another example is the recently passed Texas law, SB 671, which provides a high school credit to students who have graduated from a TEA compliant Dual Language elementary schools.  This law also includes provisions for more high school credit hours and college credit for those children who speak the second language and who continue taking classes in the second language throughout middle school.  Policies like these are first steps, but many more are required to help build our country’s linguistic skills and cross-cultural connections so that we as a larger community with engaged citizens and employees, have the skills necessary to unite us and lead us forward in the 21st century.

Most importantly, parents must work together to demand educational and enrichment programs to support their children’s bilingual and multicultural education.  Parents are key drivers for policy changes and  implementation across all sectors of government and educational institutions.  Parents make their voices heard by choosing dual language schools, supporting language enrichment programs, raising funds to support language and cross cultural education and holding policy and community leaders accountable to providing such educational programs.

Noteworthy studies that demonstrate important cognitive and social skill advantages: 

Dr Máire Ní Ríordáin, Mathematics and Gaeilge:  A Report on the Influence of Bilingualism, May 2011.

Ellen Bialystok and Shilpi Majumder, The relationship between bilingualism and the development of cognitive processes in problem solving, January 1998.

Hwajin Yang, Sujin Yang, Stephen J. Ceci, and Qi Wang, Effects of Bilinguals’ Controlled-Attention on Working Memory and Recognition, Cornell University 2005.

Heather McLeay, The Relationship Between Bilingualism and the Performance of Spatial Tasks, 26 Mar 2010.

Kessler, C., & Quinn, M. E., Positive effects of bilingualism on Science problem solving abilities, 1980.
Ben-Zeev, S., The influence of bilingualism on cognitive strategy and cognitive development. 1977.

Demont, E., Contribution of early 2nd-language learning to development of linguistic awareness and learning to read, 2001.

Landry, R. G., The enhancement of figural creativity through second language learning at the elementary school level, 1973.

Boaz Keysar, Sayuri L. Hayakawa, Sun Gyu An, The Foreign-Language Effect, Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases, April 18, 2012.

Viorica Marian, Anthony Shook, and Scott R. Schroeder, Bilingual Two-Way Immersion Programs Benefit Academic Achievement, Sept. 5, 2013.

Krista Byers-Heinlein and Bianca Garcia, Bilingualism Changes Children’s Beliefs about what is Innate, 2015.

Morgan, C. ‘Attitude change and foreign language culture learning’ in Language Teaching, 1993.

Samantha P. Fan, Zoe Liberman, Boaz Keysar, Katherine D. Kinzler, The Exposure Advantage: Early Exposure to a Multilingual Environment Promotes Effective Communication, May 8, 2015.

Jonathan W Pesner, Frank Auld, The relationship between bilingual proficiency and self-esteem, 1980.