Editorial: Learning the Language of Business

Analysis

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There are many issues piling up in the average CEO’s intray, whether it is the energy crisis, supply chain bottlenecks, rampant inflation, or the war next door. You could add digitization and decarbonization to the mix and know there were still more challenges to come.

I have never been a CEO, so I can’t say I have hands-on experience with the particular skillsets needed to keep multiple plates spinning while plotting a pathway to a net-zero future whilst also pleasing the various stakeholders and their disparate demands and expectations. Chapeau, as the French might say.

One concern I have not yet mentioned, but which C-suiters bring up repeatedly, is sourcing workforce. Hungary enjoys a welcome dilemma in having near full employment. It never openly says so, but I imagine one reason the government has switched focus from the quantity of jobs investors create to the quality of those positions is that it worries about numbers. For all the talk of reserves in the labor market, from getting young mothers back to work, to upgrading those on public work schemes, to overcoming mobility issues, I find it hard to credit that these will be workers with the right skill sets, at least in big enough numbers to make a difference.

Perhaps that is why so many companies have decided to get involved with the upcoming generations, whether as part of the German dual-education system or forging direct links with universities nationwide. I was struck by how many of the players we interviewed for our Market Talk piece in this issue complained about the lack of language skills.

There is a discordance at play here. So many business service centers list language ability as one of the reasons for choosing Hungary as a location. In Budapest especially, it is not hard to find graduates with excellent language skills. And yet, market-leading education portal eduline.hu ran a piece at the beginning of this month, citing data from the Language Examination Accreditation Department of the Education Office, stating that fewer than 83,000 people took a language exam last year, and only 60,000 obtained a certificate. According to eduline, between 2013 and 2019, 120,000-135,000 people took a language exam every year. By 2020, that number had dropped to just over 86,000. During COVID, the government ordered a language exam amnesty for 2021 and 2022, so even those who did not obtain the necessary language exam certificate received their diplomas (previously, those who passed their university exams but not the language requirement were not awarded a graduation certificate). However, the number of language exam takers has not returned to its previous level. In 2021, 85,504 passed, and only 82,836 in 2022.

Our Market Talk panelists were not dismissive of the Hungarian education system. One talked of “excellent theoretical knowledge,” but the language deficit is one they have to expend their own resources on fixing. Aldi International IT Services Kft., which provides IT support to more than 4,000 Aldi stores and 55 warehouses and offices in Europe from its bases in Budapest and Pécs, has established the Aldi Talent Campus to give applicants the proper language and IT training. It is perhaps not the best guide to what is happening today because it is so backward-looking, but this month Eurostat, the EU’s statistical body, released a comparative study of language skills among the member states in 2016. Some 57.6% of the adult working-age population of Hungary reported that they did not know any foreign language. Only Romania (64.2%) and the United Kingdom (65.4%) were worse. Concerns around the language skills of Hungarian graduates are not new, but they surely need addressing.

Robin Marshall

Editor-in-chief

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of February 24, 2023.

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