EMPLOYERS’ VIEWS ON THE IMPORTANCE OF ENGLISH PROFICIENCY .

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Indonesian Journal of Applied Linguistics, Vol. 7 No. 2, September 2017, pp. 315-327EMPLOYERS’ VIEWS ON THE IMPORTANCE OF ENGLISHPROFICIENCY AND COMMUNICATION SKILL FOR EMPLOYABILITYIN MALAYSIASu-Hie TingErnisa MarzukiKee-Man ChuahJecky MisiengCollin JeromeUniversiti Malaysia [email protected] received: 13 June 2017Final proof received: 22 September 2017AbstractEmployability of graduates is a concern in many countries, including Malaysia, and the highunemployment rate among graduates is often attributed to their lack of English proficiency andcommunication skills. These two distinctive elements are often collated, and it is important to findout which is more important to employers. The study examined the employers’ views on theimportance of English proficiency and communication skill for graduates to be employed in theMalaysian private sector. The data were from semi-structured interviews conducted with 10employers in the private sector who were in the position to recruit staff. The 21,433-word interviewtranscripts were analyzed. The results revealed that employers in the Malaysian private sector viewlanguage proficiency and communication skills as separate qualities. The employers are willing toconsider employing candidates with average English proficiency if they have good communicationskills, except for jobs which require more communication in English such as customer service andmarketing. The results also revealed that good communication skills can increase employability andopportunities for career advancement. The findings highlight the communication skills thatuniversities need to emphasize so that their graduates have the necessary skills to perform well inemployment interviews and in their work.Keywords: English proficiency; communication skill; graduate employability; Malaysia; privatesectorEmployability of graduates is a concern in manycountries, and Malaysia is no exception as shown bya report by the Department of Statistics of Malaysia:benefits were below their expectation. The surveyfound that in reality only 54% of the bachelor’sdegree holders received the expected salary level ofRM1,800 - RM2,600. Another 35% received asalary below RM1,800. The results also showed thatdiploma holders were more likely to be employedthan degree holders. Based on their survey of humanresource executives, Jayasingam, Fujiwara, andThurasamy (2016) stated that highly competentcandidates could afford to be choosy about their jobsand it might not have adverse effects on theiremployability.However, the high unemployment rate amonggraduates is often attributed to their lack of Englishproficiency and communication skills. In theworkplace context, good communication skills referto the ability to transmit and receive informationclearly, and include the ability to read the audiencein order to avoid and resolve conflicts (Kermode,2017). In Malaysia, feedback from stakeholders inthe private sector, reported in the mass media (e.g.,Aruna, 2011; Teoh, 2011), indicate that graduates donot have the necessary language and communicationskills for workplace communication. Consequently,they cannot speak English properly or are notThe unemployment rate in Malaysia was recorded at3.2 percent in August of 2015, remaining steadyfrom the preceding month and matching marketforecasts. Unemployment rate in Malaysiaaveraged 3.26 percent from 1998 until 2015,reaching an all time high of 4.50 percent in March of1999 and a record low of 2.70 percent in August of2012. (Trading Economics, 2015)Research has identified some reasons for the highunemployment rate in Malaysia, among which isunrealistic salary expectation. A JobStreet.comsurvey on graduate employment in Malaysiaconducted in November 2011 involving 1,830respondents revealed that graduates were asking fortoo high a salary (JobStreet, 2015). The bachelordegree holders expected a salary level betweenRM1,800 and RM2,600 for the bachelor’s degreeholders (73%) whereas the diploma holdersexpected a salary level between RM1,200 andRM1,800 (67%). In fact, 29% of the respondentshad rejected a job offer because the salary and315doi: dx.doi.org/10.17509/ijal.v7i2.8132

Ting, Marzuki, Chuah, Misieng, and Jerome, Employers’ views on importance.confident when making oral presentations (Yasin,Shaupil, Mukhtar, Ab Ghani, & Rashid, 2010). Astudy by Singh and Singh (2008) in the KlangValley showed that graduates and employers concuron the importance of English proficiency andcommunicative ability for graduate employability.The rankings of importance are as follows: 1)adaptability skills, 2) interpersonal and teamworkskills, 3) time management skills, 4) Englishlanguage proficiency, 5) information communicationtechnology skills, 6) leadership skills, and 7)communication skills. In fact, employers in theprivate sector would rather employ graduates fromtransnational private universities because of theirbetter command of English although graduates fromMalaysian public universities are familiar with localconditions, diligent, and have lower salaryexpectations (Cheong, Hill, Fernandez-Chung, &Leong, 2016). Malaysian university students areaware that poor language proficiency can hampercommunicative ability, but do not agree that a goodmastery of English would automatically imbue onewith the ability to speak with confidence andconverse in an interactive and knowledgeable(Marzuki, Ting, Jerome, Chuah, & Misieng, 2013).From the mass media reports and researchpapers on graduate unemployability, it is clear that itis important for graduates to have goodcommunication skills and English proficiency to getemployed. These two skills are often mentionedtogether as if they are one element but someresearchers like Singh and Singh (2008) view themas separate elements. In this paper, we show that theemployers’ views of communication skills andlanguage proficiency concur with the literature onthe two being related but distinctive elements, andthey hold different values depending on type of joband company.The study examined the employers’ views onthe importance of English proficiency andcommunication skill for graduates to be employed inthe Malaysian private sector. The specific aspectsstudied were: (1) the importance of communicationskills in the private sector; (2) the importance ofEnglish proficiency in the private sector; and (3) therelative importance of communication skills andEnglish proficiency. The communication skillreferred to in this paper is oral communication skill,and the focus is on English proficiency.In the rest of this paper, the related literature onhow English proficiency and communication skillrelate to employability is reviewed before thetheoretical framework of the study is explained.Next, the methodology and results are described.The results are discussed in relation to the literatureand conclusions are drawn.have a well-defined scope for the industry,academics, government agencies and students.Employability encompasses skills and attributes thatenable fresh graduates to secure jobs and those whoare already employed to maintain or advance in theircareer. “This involves possessing particularknowledge, skills and attitudes with an ability todeploy them and market them to employers”(Lowden, Hall, Elliot, & Lewin, 2011, p. 6). Finch,Hamilton, Baldwin, and Zehner’s (2013) study inCanada found that when employers hired newgraduates, they place the highest importance on softskills and the lowest importance on academicreputation, the other categories being problemsolving skills, functional skills, pre-graduation skillsand academic reputation.Among the soft skills, communication skill hasreceived more attention in the context ofemployability. Core communication skills areidentified as “inter-alia, making presentations,taking part in technical discourse, confidentlyexplaining and justifying actions, processes anddecisions to co-workers and line-managers andcommunicating effectively across a multi-cultural/multi-national workforce” by employers in the GulfStates (Thomas, Piquette, & McMaster, 2016, p. 2).A survey by National Association of Colleges on219 employers in the United States showed thatcommunication skill was the most sought-after skillin graduates and yet it was the skill that is mostlacking in fresh graduates (DuPre & Williams,2011). The US graduates in this survey were awarethat good communication skill is among the top fiveskills wanted by their future employers. Robles(2012) confirms that communication skill is amongthe top 10 soft skills perceived as the most importantby business executives in the United States,comprising integrity, communication, courtesy,responsibility, social skills, positive attitude,professionalism, flexibility, teamwork, and workethic. Similar findings were obtained in Australia,where employers were of the view that manygraduates were lacking in generic skills includingcommunicative abilities despite possessing excellentacademic results (Crebert, Bates, Bell, Patrick, &Cragnolini, 2004). In Thailand, Pattanaoichet andChinokul (2011) found that most future employersin the public relations sector did not recruit localuniversity graduates because of their lack ofconfidencetocommunicateinEnglish.Communication skills are also important in theengineering profession in Australia. “Given thatcommunication is ranked as one of the primecharacteristics required by employers in theengineering industry, EQ [emotional intelligence]has an important role to play in strengtheningcommunication skills when certain EQ elements areenhanced in the student” (Riemer, 2002, p. 98).However, there are some exceptions to thesefindings. Employers in Kuwait valued knowledgeLITERATURE REVIEWIn recent years, institutions of higher education havebegun to focus on employability but this does not316

Indonesian Journal of Applied Linguistics, Vol. 7 No. 2, September 2017, pp. 315-327more than soft skills for business graduates(Abdulla, Naser, & Saeid, 2014). Among the softskills, computing and numerical skills topped thelist, and oral communication skill ranked 7 out of 9.Other than Abdulla et al. (2014), other studies haveshown the primary importance of communicationskill to graduate employability.Past research studies have also pointed to thevalue of good language proficiency to employees,particularly English. English is the lingua franca ofthe commercial sphere with more businesses goingglobal. Since interviews are mostly conducted inEnglish, employers often form judgements of theinterviewees’ ability based on their ability to speakEnglish (Pandey & Pandey, 2014). Pandey andPandey (2014) stated that an employee with brilliantideas and poor English will stay at the bottom of themanagement ladder. In view of this, Pooja (2013)asserts that the lecturers teaching English have theresponsibility “to build real competencies to bridgethe gap between corporate needs and institutionalofferings” (p. 351). However, Canning (2009)believes that academics should not promote the viewthat modern language degrees would enablegraduates to develop competence in two or morelanguages and hence increase their chances ofemployability. Although Pandey and Pandey (2014)and Pooja (2013) were both writing about theimportance of English for employability in India, thesituations described are similar in Malaysia as bothcountries were previously under British rule beforetheir independence. Using the Australian GraduateSurvey data from 2010 to 2012, Poon’s (2016)analysis revealed that English proficiency has astatistically significant impact on employmentoutcomes and patterns for the 1,258 real estate and9,206 built environment graduates. Degree levelsaffect employment patterns of real estate graduateswhereas age and gender affected those of builtenvironment graduates. Poon (2016) reported thatthe employment rates for real estate and builtenvironment graduates who did not speak English athome were low, 11.00 and 16.08 percentrespectively. This group of Australian permanentresidents is likely to be from families withimmigrant backgrounds, and English proficiencyaffected their chances of securing employment. Inthe United States, English language proficiencyaffects earnings of immigrants (Fleisher, Li, & Li,2015). English proficiency may not be an issue fornative speakers of English but for non-nativespeakers of English, English proficiency is anadvantage for securing employment and careeradvancement.research publications (Marzuki et al., 2013; Singh &Singh, 2008; Yasin et al., 2010), the relationshipbetween these two constructs form the theoreticalframework of the study. This section reviews theliterature on the definition of these constructs fromtwo different disciples, language teaching andcommunication, to reach a better understanding ofthe relationship between language proficiency andcommunication skill.Language proficiency is the goal of languageteaching. Put generally, the goal of languageteaching is to enable language learners to take partin the “normal give-and-take of target languageconversation” (Lowe, 1983, p. 238). Lowe’s (1983)definition focuses on oral proficiency, which is alsothe focal point of ACTFL (American Council on theTeaching of Foreign Languages)/ETS (EnglishLanguage Testing Service) Proficiency Guidelines.ACTFL/ETS is a “proficiency-oriented curriculum”(Kramsch, 1986, p. 366) which is very influential inthe United States and Great Britain respectively (vanLier, 1989).The proficiency-oriented curriculum isunderpinned by three beliefs on the nature andpurpose of language learning, which are: (1)learning a language is learning how to use it, (2)“language is bound to its situational context and towhat [the topic or content] is being communicated inthat context”, and (3) grammatical accuracy is ofparamount importance in developing languageproficiency (Kramsch, 1986, p. 366). With attentionto the function, content, and accuracy in languageteaching, then language learners can increase theircommunicative ability, which is defined as the“ability to function effectively in the language inreal-life contexts” (Byrnes, 1984, p. 12).The ability to use English effectively in theMalaysian setting varies because English is a foreignlanguage to some as it does not have muchrecognized functions in their daily lives (Richards,Platt, & Weber, 1985) and a second language toothers because they use them for a range offunctions on a daily basis. Nevertheless, within thesituational context in which they need to useEnglish, they should be able to function effectivelyin it. Kramsch (1986) states that the ProficiencyGuidelines “implicitly maintain that successfulcommunication will take place if the learners havethe required proficiency, i.e., if they know how toput their point across appropriately, precisely, andcorrectly, and with the required degree of fluency”(p. 370). In other words, better proficiency leads tobetter communication.However, critics of the proficiency-orientedcurriculum question whether or not languagelearners are able to function effectively in it.Kramsch (1986) argues that learners who are theproducts of the proficiency-oriented curriculum maynot have interactional competency, not because ofthe lack of proficiency but because of the lack ofTheoretical framework of the studyAs language proficiency and communication skillare often mentioned together in relation to graduateemployability in the Malaysian setting whether inmass media reports (Aruna, 2011; Teoh, 2011) or317

Ting, Marzuki, Chuah, Misieng, and Jerome, Employers’ views on importance.shared realities, for example, “expectations,assumptions, and general representations of theworld” (p. 368). This is because learners learnlanguages to use it for various functions (explainedearlier in the three beliefs on the nature and purposeof language learning), and the uses to which alanguage is put to usually involves interactions withother people. Seldom is a language learnt merely forself-expression without an audience, which is whyKramsch (1986, p. 370) emphasizes the importanceof interactional competence.The notion of an audience is also found in theProficiency Guidelines’ definition of whatsuccessful communication is (speakers know how toput their point across appropriately, precisely, andcorrectly, and with the required degree of fluency).However, the point cannot be conveyed if thelisteners (or readers) do not understand the messagebecause of a different reality or understanding of theworld. The speaker’s accuracy and fluency in thelanguage cannot surmount the comprehensionbarrier caused by the lack of shared realities.Kramsch (1986) also questioned the accuracyfocus of the proficiency-oriented curriculum andstated that grammatical inaccuracies do not impedecommunication as much as errors at a discourselevel (e.g., not knowing patterns of directness orpoliteness, and thereby causing insult or offence). InKramsch’s (1986) view, the Proficiency Guidelinesdeals with discourse aptitude at a textual level (e.g.,use of cohesive devices) but neglects discoursecoherence, which includes “entering temporarilysomeone else’s frame of reference and following thecultural logic of their conversation” (p. 370). Thisdiscourse coherence is made possible when thespeaker and listener have shared realities whichmake comprehension possible. In short, the critics ofthe proficiency-oriented curriculum claim thatproficiency in the target language does notautomatically bring about interactional competence,which is good communication skill to laypersons.From proficiency, we move on tocommunication skill. Communication takes placewhen information, ideas, attitudes, or emotion aretransmitted from one person or group to another viasymbols (Theodorson & Theodorson, 1969). Usingthe information theory, Shannon and Weaver (1949)proposed a communication model which built uponAristotle’s early model of communication thatexplains how a message encoded by a speaker istransmitted to the listener. Shannon and Weaverintroduced the elements of transmitter and receiverfor sending and receiving the message respectively(like the case of a radio transmission), and also theelement of noise (e.g., static) which may interferewith the transmission of the message. The model ofcommunication that is more relevant to ourinvestigation of the relationship between languageproficiency and communication skill is thatdeveloped by Schramm (1954) who studiedcommunication as an independent discipline (Croft,2004).Schramm (1954) highlights the importance ofinterpersonal communication in his model ofcommunication. He introduced the idea of the fieldsof experience, that is, the sender of the messageencodes the message based on the sender’s field ofexperience and the receiver of the message decodesit based on the receiver’s field of experience. If theydo not share the fields of experience, then acommunication breakdown may occur. The moreoverlap there is between the two fields ofexperience, the better the communication. Forexample, sixth graders would not understand aneurophysiology lecture because they do not havethe background knowledge of chemistry andbiology, much less the specialised knowledge ofbiochemical processes in the nervous system (Croft,2004). For a start, Croft (2004) said that the sixthgrader audience would lack the vocabulary to makesense of the neurophysiology lecture.Later Schramm (1954) brought in the idea offeedback, which transforms the notion of the lineartransmission of messages to a continuous process ofmessages and feedback. Figure 1 shows theinteraction between the sender and receiver inSchramm’s model of communication.With the definitions of proficiency andcommunication established based on the languageteaching and communication disciplines, it is time toexamine the relationship between these twoconstructs. Schramm’s (1954) idea of shared fieldsof experiences between the sender and receiver hassome semblance to the element of shared realitieshighlighted by Kramsch (1986) in her criti

the importance of English proficiency and communication skill for graduates to be employed in the Malaysian private sector. The specific aspects studied were: (1) the importance of communication skills in the private sector; (2) the importance of English proficiency in the private sector; and (3) the

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