How to translate language skills into success

By Suzanne Kubota
Senior Internet Editor

The demand for feds with foreign language skills is growing but the talent pool is not.

More than 80 agencies currently employ people with translation skills in more than 100 different languages, with demand increasing.

The Partnership for Public Service has taken a look at the shrinking pool of people with the language skills the government needs, why it’s shrinking and suggestions for change.

John Palguta, Vice President for Policy at the Partnership, told Federal News Radio the new issue brief finds there isn’t any one single problem or solution.

“It’s a combination things,” said Palguta. Part of the problem is that federal jobs require candidates to be citizens. “Ninety nine percent of all federal employees are citizens, so native language speakers sometimes have difficulty because they may be here with visas and work permits and everything else, but if they’re not citizens,” said Palguta, there’s an extra hurdle to federal employment.

Security clearances can be an issue, and even finding a college or university to study a language can be difficult. According to the study, “only 17 colleges and universities offer Farsi, 10 offer Hindi/Urdu, 1 offers Pashto and 1 offers Dari.”

The study makes recommendations for three major institutions: Congress, federal agencies, and colleges and universities.

According to the study, federal agencies should:

  • Make greater use of existing programs, such as the National Security Education Program, which awards scholarship assistance to students to study foreign languages in return for a term of federal service.
  • Invest in strategic workforce planning to identify long-term goals and project hiring needs for acquiring foreign language talent from all channels-new and current employees, contractors and volunteers.
  • Intensify efforts to train and retain employees who speak mission-critical languages by evaluating and improving existing education programs and expanding the number of languages taught.
  • Partner with colleges and universities to promote federal opportunities for foreign language speakers and to recruit top talent into public service.

“We cannot just assume that all the world is going to learn English,” said Palguta. “If the government is going to continue to be a successful world player, we need to be able to communicate with the rest of the world.”

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