Statistics show that up to a quarter of graduates end up unemployed with poor command of English being a main reason.
THE low level of English proficiency in a jobseeker instantly puts the person in a disadvantaged position, especially if she is seeking a job in the private sector.
Conversely, having the ability to hold a proper conversation in English, whether over the phone or in person, greatly increases the chance of the candidate progressing to the next round of the hiring process.
Some recruiters face this “mismatch shock” when they call a candidate after poring through what seemed to be a near-perfect resume and cover letter, written in immaculate English.
Beyond this shocking situation is an ugly truth: statistics from the Malaysian Employers Federation show that 200,000 graduates in Malaysia were unemployed with poor command of English being a main reason. What’s even more frightening is that about 200,000 students graduate from universities every year with a degree but about a quarter end up unemployed annually.
Manpower Malaysia country manager Sam Haggag said employers want people who can communicate well, a trait that is always nearly at the top of the list when screening a job applicant.
“It’s the ability to connect with other people and get your ideas across,” he said.
Potential employees are frustrated too because they know they’re supposed to master communication skills as that’s what they’re taught in school, but they just can’t seem to deliver the goods when it matters.
Most job seekers are able to polish their resume pretty well, and there are lots of resources that help one to craft a good resume by following several templates.
Other than this, Haggag said it is also normal for job seekers to seek the help of friends or lecturers to brush up their resume.
“However, once they get to the interview, the gap between what’s in the CV (curriculum vitae) and in the interview becomes very stark,” said Haggag, who added that the inability to articulate well is a huge setback as it “can often mask some amazing talent”.
Haggag argued that it is not just the inability to converse in English, but one where confidence is lacking.
In February, Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh said that Malaysian students are “very proficient” in English, and are continuing to improve.
He said the ministry’s centralised university unit had conducted a study on the applicants and found that their level of English was improving.
“The Government has emphasised English in schools and higher learning institutions, and I believe that proficiency in the language will soar even higher,” he said.
Haggag advised those who aren’t confident with spoken English to seek help from their career counsellors.
“The second thing is to practise being in an interview so you’re reasonably confident in terms of what you want to do,” he added, while advising new job seekers to also prepare an “elevator pitch” to show what they can bring to the company.
Manpower Group Solutions manager Michele Joseph said that there is a noticeable difference between candidates coming out of government schools, vernaculars schools and private schools.
“Those from vernacular schools can speak English but it comes across as very rehearsed,” she said.
Joseph added that when she probes the candidates with the more out-of-the-box questions, they stumble to answer.
“They struggle to put phrases and words together.”
Most, she said, will give you an answer that is “a direct translation” from their native language.
She said it isn’t just those fresh out of school but also those who have just graduated with degrees who struggle to communicate in English.
“They come out thinking that having a basic command of English is enough but it’s not. We don’t need ‘bombastic’ English but we need those who can actually communicate.”
She noted that the level of English proficiency among job seekers has nosedived over the past five years, contradicting Idris’ assertion.
Manpower Group recruitment hub manager Chrislind Lionel is another recruiter who lamented that she regularly comes across candidates who can’t speak English fluently.
“When it comes to the private sector, their business language is English,” she said, adding that that recruiters often ask more offbeat or less generic questions to gauge the candidate’s language skills as well as ability to think-on-the-run.
“There are plenty of jobs out there but the disconnect happens because of the poor English of the candidates,” she said.
To prep its students, the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus (UNMC) organises many job preparation courses, with UNMC head of careers advisory service Alicia Ch’ng saying her unit shares tips on how to ace the interview, as well as conducts simulated interviews.
Ch’ng added that she would invite recruiters to share with her team what is required in the job market so that the university can better prepare their students.
Taylor’s University Career Services director Sandy Tan said the university makes it a point to bring in industry experts, hiring managers and HR specialists to conduct resume writing workshops for their students. For example, she said, four stages of resume writing options are given within the Taylor’s Business School.
Finance and economics student at Taylor’s University Tan Xue Ying, 22, said she and her fellow students were asked to fill in relevant details into an online platform called Student Employability Enhancement & Development System (SEED), which will then generate a generic CV.
Although this could be considered the “perfect” CV, Xue Ying said that students are not encouraged to use it for actual job applications.
“It doesn’t look as good as a resume you wrote yourself,” she said, adding that it also does not reflect their “real” self, especially when it comes to the writing style.
Instead, students are asked to write their own resumes which are then shown to career counsellors for feedback.
Accounting and finance student Nabil Fikri Musawir said the career counsellor stressed on the importance of speaking proper English to impress the interviewer.
The 23-year-old, also from Taylor’s University, said his counsellor advised him to enunciate clearly and be careful with his choice of words so that he comes across as competent.
“The way you construct your sentence is very important to show that you’re very into or inclined towards the business world,” he added.
Nabil Fikri said the SEED resume template is meant to give students an idea of the “flow” of a resume.
“It is very useful in the sense that we know what we should put in our resume.”
Au Jo Ey @ Deloris Au, 23, said she found the SEED template to be very convenient.
“Once you’re done filling up everything then when you actually have to do the resume, you just extract and copy paste it, saving a lot of time,” added the undergraduate in food science.
Still, she is cognisant of the need to tailor make her CV for the various jobs out there, with a colourful and visually-striking resume for companies that exhibit a more relaxed or fun culture, and a more sedate version for others.
According to Dr Mass Hareeza Ali, the Higher Education Ministry is focusing on increasing the level of English proficiency through the incorporation of the language in university courses.
Dr Mass Hareeza, who is director of Universiti Putra Malaysia’s (UPM) Centre of Entrepreneurial Development and Graduate Marketability, also teaches business communication, a course fully conducted in English.
While acknowledging that employers are looking for employees who are fluent in English, the centre does not conduct any specific course designed to empower the use of English within the centre itself.
“Instead, we do it by encouraging our Fundamentals of Entrepreneurship students to conduct their presentations and projects in English,” she added.
Thankfully, more and more students are becoming aware of the importance of English.
UPM student Aida Nurizzah bt Husaini, 21, believes her varsity’s efforts in this area will benefit her when it comes to seeking employment.
Her coursemate Sarah Amalina Sazally, 21, is convinced that employers are looking for those with good English, and that a well-written CV will help open doors.
Although she gets to speak English daily thanks to her course, she acknowledges that not everyone has managed to grasp the intricacies of the language.
“English has become second nature to me, but then, when I communicate with others at the university, I realise that not everyone knows the language well.”
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