Benchmarks For English Skill: The Right Grasp

The British Council in Sri Lanka has conducted a benchmarking exercise to figure how much English skill is enough for the country’s most important industries.

Sri Lanka’s workplaces have changed in the past decades. Businesses have grown and the elite school bunch is no longer a pool big enough to fill the job openings requiring English skills. Tourism has boomed, requiring vast numbers to service many hotels. As products of Sri Lanka’s vernacular education system, most young people now entering the workforce have few English skills. This challenges firms using English as the language of business and ones like hotels where most guests don’t speak local languages.

en2Poor communication retards growth. However, not every team member needs perfect English communication skills. A hotel steward needs fewer English skills than does a manager at the same place. But what is this standard? Is it the ability to conduct a conversation with a client? Or the ability to write an extensive report? Make a 30-minute presentation? Lead a meeting? The British Council has conducted a benchmarking exercise to answer these questions. The organisation recognised the English skill gap at businesses and the lack of a framework of the skills required. The exercise ascertains the English skills necessary in some of the country’s most important industries. The British Council worked with key institutions in the BPO, KPO and IT; telecommunications; manufacturing and retail; hospitality and tourism; banking; and insurance industries to understand the English requirements of different roles within each. Benchmarking provides a clear picture of the English skill levels needed in a particular job. The British Council benchmarked skills for 160 job roles.

For example, a hotel hires a wide range of employees, which includes janitorial staff who would almost never use English, security staff who would need basic skills to meet and greet or provide basic information, restaurant and room staff who need to have simple conversations and managerial staff whose regular interaction with clients and suppliers requires independent use of English.

To benchmark the English skills required in the 160 roles, one of the British Council’s most experienced trainers sat with people engaged in each role, talking to them about what level of English they felt they needed and observing them in their job functions to see who they interacted with, what kind of information they handled and at what level they needed to communicate.

enThe exercise evaluates the English level required in each job role with regards to reading, writing, speaking and listening, using the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), a global framework developed over 20 years of research and used to teach, assess and measure English competency. It assesses language proficiency at six levels, with a person at the lowest rating able to carry out only very simple conversations like greetings or exchanging names to someone at the highest rating able to use language proficiently in complex situations.

“A lot of the time people struggle to be specific about exactly what they want their staff to improve,” says Mark Elliott, the British Council Business Development Manager for South Asia. “They’ll just say they need English, generally. So when you do something like benchmarking, it gives you a very, very clear picture of exactly what’s needed for that role, for that level in that organization.” When a company partners with the British Council, its team assesses the English skills the company’s job roles require and whether the current employees have these skills. This either provides the company assurance that they have employees with the right skills or they find out that their employees need more support. With the latter too the British Council can help through a tailor-made solution – a skill improvement course – that can be implemented digitally or face to face or a mix of both. They can then also provide a second assessment, if the company requires it. “The benefit to companies is that they know exactly where they should be,” says Mark. “Or we can get them to where they should be and then also provide the solution to check whether they got a return.”

The British Council has a fullfledged training centre in Colombo. The centre provides soft skills training and business English courses. The clients are all organizations, from governmental institutions to private companies, and the British Council customises its programmes to each client organisation’s requirements. The British Council is the UK’s international organization for cultural relations and educational opportunities and has been working in Sri Lanka for over 60 years.

The benchmarking exercise was a result of what the British Council saw in Sri Lanka and the programme was focused on this country. But the organization is now looking at taking it elsewhere.

“We want Sri Lanka to take a more structured approach to language,” says Robert Sandrasagara, Assistant Manager Marketing – English and Examinations.”