THE PHILIPPINES needs to step up efforts to address the deterioration in English proficiency among Filipino workers, foreign business groups said, warning that this could hurt the country’s competitiveness.

The Philippines’ advantage in English has strengthened the country’s position as an attractive destination for international trade and investment, said Paulo Duarte, president of the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines (ECCP).

“As more foreign investors set up operations in the Philippines, the importance of high English proficiency cannot be overstated,” he said in a Viber message to BusinessWorld. “It greatly enhances workplace efficiency and overall business operations.”

However, the Philippines slipped four notches to 22nd place out of 111 countries in the 2022 edition of the English Proficiency Index (EPI) by global education company Education First (EF). Despite the lower ranking the Philippines still ranked second highest in English proficiency in East and Southeast Asia, behind Singapore.

The country’s EPI score of 578 is categorized as “high proficiency,” which is considered to be sufficient for tasks like making work presentations, understanding TV shows, and reading newspapers, according to EF.

The Philippines must not risk losing this crucial advantage, according to a foreign business group.

“Knowing English is one of several major advantages for Filipinos, we would encourage the government to take the necessary steps to retain and improve English language training at all levels of education, with a focus on Business English,” Bo Lundqvist, president of the Nordic Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines (NordCham), said in an e-mailed reply to questions.

In a 2020 report, the Philippine Institute for Development Studies said, citing a study on the status of the senior high school (SHS) implementation, that many public SHS students lack the basic skills needed for the program.

“Many of the teachers who responded to our study shared they have students who still lack the literacy and numeracy skills and English competencies required for SHS,” Karen Brillantes, a consultant for PIDS, was quoted as saying.

The PIDS report also said that many teachers expressed concerns about students who struggle to form simple English sentences, “making some subjects like Practical Research difficult for the latter.”

In an e-mail interview, Audrey B. Morallo, assistant professor of language education at the University of the Philippines College of Education, noted that “some companies have reported difficulties finding qualified candidates because of their poor communication skills.”

“How can the decent scores we have explain this? This can be an indication that quality language education might not be accessible to many Filipinos,” he added.

“The relatively high level of proficiency in English in the Philippines overall, not limited to the workforce only, but also the business and legal frameworks, makes establishing and operating a business here by a foreign entity easier,” NordCham’s Mr. Lundqvist said.

“[It] simplifies communication, collaboration as well as the ability to render services beyond borders,” he noted. “Therefore, the English language is still a major competitive advantage.”

English proficiency is just one of the many factors contributing to competitiveness, said Yves Aguilos, head of government affairs at the German-Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GPCCI), via e-mail on Oct. 13.

“The Filipino workforce is also recognized for their strong work ethic, adaptability, technical skills, hospitality, and a keen sense of cultural awareness,” he said.

ECCP’s Mr. Duarte said the rapid acceleration of the digital economy during the pandemic changed the skill sets required by companies.

The Department of Labor and Employment JobsFit COVID-19 Labor Market Information Report said that most jobseekers started highlighting their digital and technical skills during the pandemic.

“In the rapidly evolving landscape of the modern workforce, adaptability, technological prowess, and specialized skills have become equally critical,” Mr. Duarte noted.

Peachy Pacquing, managing director at global digital business school Hyper Island Singapore, noted that her experience as a professorial lecturer and senior industry fellow at the tertiary level shows her that some students graduate with English proficiency gaps.

“I had to make peace with the fact that I was there to teach how to express and execute ideas, not to teach English grammar to college students,” she said in a Viber message.

Ms. Pacquing noted different factors contributing to the decline in English proficiency within the business process outsourcing industry, which points toward a systemic and adaptive challenge. These factors include the diversification of clients’ needs and investments, which has led to reduced demand for voice services, alongside the increasing integration of technology in the form of chatbots and artificial intelligence (AI), she said.

“Technology is evolving at an exponential rate and those who struggle with English might find much-needed support in generative AI. But we have to think, if the proficiency is not embedded and merely augmented, what sort of Filipinos will we be producing?” she added.

For GPCCI’s Mr. Aguilos, further collaboration between the business community and local educational institutions could be explored, focusing on key areas where the use of English is critical.

For his part, NordCham’s Mr. Lundqvist said: “We believe the proficiency in English is not only a competitive advantage for the Philippines but also a vehicle for the many Filipinos to attain higher education and a career either locally or abroad.”

“As foreign employers, we will be able to provide better training and more opportunities for personal growth for Filipinos with good language skills,” he added.

Sergio R. Ortiz-Luis, Jr., president of the Employers Confederation of the Philippines, said that the country can no longer take pride in English proficiency as one of its advantages in the global market.

“We should really start taking it seriously. We have to improve our curriculum. Napababayaan na [It’s being neglected],” Mr. Ortiz-Luis said in a phone interview. “It is the language of commerce, investments, and trade. We are being overtaken.”

George T. Barcelon, president of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said various groups have been urging the Department of Education (DepEd) to focus on improving the English language skills of students.

“We have slipped quite far behind on the international assessment regarding education, so learning is a priority. Public and private schools should be on top of this,” Mr. Barcelon told BusinessWorld via phone call. 

In a separate phone interview, Rene E. Ofreneo, professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman School of Labor and Industrial Relations, said that the decline in English proficiency reflects a general crisis in education, which must be strengthened at the basic, secondary, and tertiary level.   

Hyper Island Singapore’s Ms. Pacquing noted that maintaining the Filipinos’ English edge means revisiting the incentives, objectives, and key results of the English education faculty.

“Beyond formal and structured education, what are the societal and cultural scaffolds we have in place to drive towards English proficiency?” she said.

For Mr. Morallo of the UP College of Education, the education sector must continuously improve how Filipino students learn the language.

“Teachers must ensure that English is taught in such a way that students will be able to use the language in meaningful communication and to achieve whatever purposes they have for learning it,” he said.

“Technological advancements today can provide students with opportunities to be exposed to the language and use it for meaningful communication.”

Teacher education institutions, he also said, must ensure qualifications for teaching the language, as well as providing opportunities for professional development.

Resources also need to be provided to the education sector. “Quality materials, equipment, technology, teacher development, etc. can be provided if the government allocates sufficient resources for education. That will also allow the hiring of more education support personnel,” Mr. Morallo said.

Amit Jagga, senior vice-president and country leader for the Philippines at Concentrix + Webhelp, said that English proficiency is central to the industry’s competitiveness and sustainability.

“There are also several aspects to language proficiency such as comprehension, effective information processing, active listening, cultural understanding (nuances and idiomatic expressions of English-speaking customers), clear articulation, and quality communication,” Mr. Jagga said on key standards and practices which must be upheld.

Mr. Jagga said that Concentrix + Webhelp employs interventions during pre-hiring, hiring, and further training development to address the potential loss of English-proficient workers.

These include one to two weeks of “near-hire” training for basic conversational English, on-the-job training for basic customer interaction skills, and government-academe partnerships for specialized customer experience courses during the pre-hiring phase, he said.

The company, according to Mr. Jagga, will launch its Turo Guro program before the yearend, which will provide free English training to school teachers nationwide.

At the hiring phase, Mr. Jagga noted that language assessments for native- or near-native-level English communication are done, alongside a skills training enhancement program for client-required communications tests.

Further training development includes a three- to seven-day customer experience training, communication skills workshops, and tech augmentation, he said.

Advanced learning through bots and automation is also used for new hires to master conversation flow and resolution of top customer concerns, he added.

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