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Vernon Carbonell, a Toronto-based recruiter, has more than 160 job openings mostly across the Greater Toronto Area for bilingual applicants fluent in French and English, but he’s struggling to find suitable candidates because the existing talent pool is practically dry.

Some positions have been sitting empty for months because there’s a paucity of French-speaking candidates.

The jobs, predominantly in Canada’s service sector, are an array of customer service and call centre positions for fintech, financial, automotive and pharmaceutical companies, as well as entry and middle-management roles in marketing and sales, human resources, talent acquisition and information technology.

“The sheer volume of bilingual applicants that used to exist in the customer service industry and in general, has dwindled considerably,” said Mr. Carbonell, who is with Bilingual Source, a Toronto recruitment agency. “The catalyst has been the pandemic. It has changed the landscape and made jobs that were not attainable before, within reach.,” he said, adding that recruiters are also seeing people who want to work remotely quit when employers force them to come into the office.

There are several factors at play: many mid-level customer-service employees upgraded their skillset during the pandemic and have now transitioned into other career paths, leaving a void. And Anglophone children and teenagers, fluent in both English and French, tend to abandon French after high school and lose the skills needed for the job market, he said.

Language premiums

The number of job vacancies in Canada reached an all-time high of 912,600 in the third quarter of 2021, according to Statistics Canada.

Francophone candidates are in the driver’s seat. They can demand – and receive – lucrative salaries and perks in the current market, he said. Bilingual candidates are generally worth anywhere from 10- to 30-per-cent more than English-only candidates in today’s job market.

Prepandemic days, many quit their jobs for a paltry $5,000-annual hike in wages. Today, desperate employers are willing to shell out $15,000 to $20,000 per year as French language premiums to woo candidates, Mr. Carbonell said.

The acute shortage of bilingual talent has forced many employers to raise salaries and drop mandatory pre-requisites, such as minimum years of experience and educational credentials.

“Candidates that wouldn’t even have gotten an interview three years ago are now getting job offers after a 30-minute phone interview,” Mr. Carbonell said. “There’s a war for talent. It’s a good time for people to learn French.”

Francophones in Canada

A 2016 Stats Canada study says, outside Quebec, the English-French bilingualism rate among youth between five and 17, was 15 per cent. Statistics Canada’s language projection models predict if all children and youth with English as a mother tongue – who also speak French – were to remain bilingual after the age of 17, then the rate for this demographic could almost double to 12 per cent from seven per cent by 2036.

There’s an expectation in Canada that chief executives, federal politicians and policymakers be fluent in both French and English. Case in point: the controversy surrounding Air Canada’s CEO Michael Rousseau, who was widely criticized for not knowing French.

Learning French

With a small daily commitment of just 15 minutes for six to eight weeks, greenhorn learners (with rudimentary understanding) can significantly improve their French, noted Esteban Touma, a teacher and content producer with Babbel, a digital language-learning app.

“One of the advantages of having an ecosystem of tools such as podcasts, video games and well-structured lessons is that there’s flexibility in when and how much you want to learn each day,” Mr. Touma said. “We found out in an independent study conducted by the University of South Carolina and City University of New York that novice users with absolutely no knowledge of Spanish could easily converse in the language in two months. Even though this study was for those learning Spanish, it’s true for French learners too.”

Babbel’s subscription-based French-language learning programs for businesses offers flexibility, whether it’s listening to the app on the way to work or taking in a live lesson during the lunch hour, he said.

“Learning French can help you stand out in a crowded job market,” Mr. Touma said. “Language proficiency not only helps create a multi-cultural understanding, but it improves memory, enhances creative thinking capacity and helps with better decision-making.”

What I’m reading around the web

  • Many experienced professionals who are stuck in unfulfilling jobs want to switch careers, but are reluctant because it means starting from the bottom and giving up their hard-earned seniority. In this story in the Harvard Business Review, Dorie Clark, author of Reinventing You, lists ways professionals can capitalize on their strengths. They include building on the success in one field and using that to try something new, making use of your advantages and finding opportunities where inexperience is a virtue.
  • This story says Ikea is hoping to fill 150 technology and innovation job openings in the company through its unusual “Taste the Future,” recruitment campaign. IKEA plans to serve plant-based meatballs prepared via 3D food printing to select candidates. Why? Because candidates can glimpse and be impressed by the company’s vision to create a sustainable future through technology and see it as a place where their own ideas can flourish.
  • Digital amnesia is the inability to remember information that you can easily access through your smart devices. This story says digital amnesia is caused by an over-reliance on technology, especially the internet. It can be alleviated by removing rarely used apps, practicing mindfulness and playing brain-training games.
  • Wordle got you yet? Wordle is a simple yet addictive web-based game where players have six attempts to figure out a five-letter word. Once they guess a letter, players enter the grid. If any of the letters guessed are in the day’s word but in the wrong place, the letter will turn gold, if they are in the right place, the letters turn green and a letter that isn’t in the word in any spot shows up gray. This story says New York Times recently acquired the game for an undisclosed seven-figure sum. The outlet says it will keep the game free to play. For how long though, is anyone’s guess.

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Radhika Panjwani is a former journalist from Toronto and a blogger.

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