With right approach, language skills can provide job-seeking edge

Nancy Heingartner never expected that studying in Soviet Union to teach Russian language would lead to diplomatic work. Yet Heingartner went on to receive a Fascell Fellowship in the late 1990s and worked for a year and a half for the U.S. State Department in Kiev, Ukraine. She even got to meet then-President Bill Clinton.

“It never occurred to me growing up that I would be able to meet a sitting president,” says Heingartner, who now works at the University of Wisconsin–Madison as the outreach coordinator for the Center for Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia (CREECA). “If you invest the time and energy to learn a language well, it can take not only your career in unexpected and wonderful directions, but also your life in general.”

Many graduates who have developed fluency in another language apply these skills by teaching or translating. But others who pursue different career paths can face daunting challenges when it comes to finding prospective employers who are seeking people with language skills, especially with the weak global economy.

It’s not an easy task, says Ritt Deitz, executive director of UW–Madison’s Professional French Master’s Program (PFMP). Deitz knows from personal experience. After completing his bachelor’s in French at the University of Virginia, he supported himself by painting houses and working in restaurants and catering.

Later, he pursued graduate work in teaching and scholarship that opened the door to a career in academia. Now, he runs an interdisciplinary program designed to help speakers of French develop professional skills that incorporate their language knowledge.

“It’s not enough to be bilingual. You need to pursue ways of making a living at the same time … that you’re staying interested in this foreign language,” Deitz says.

Add specialized training

Students don’t intuitively know how to market their language skills, says Michael Kruse, International Directions Advisor for UW–Madison’s Language Institute. Kruse leads workshops each semester to teach undergraduates about incorporating their language studies into a professional track.

After completing his bachelor’s degree at Louisiana State University, Christopher Beaver struggled to find a job that used his French skills.

“I was just drifting. I knew I wanted to use French, but I didn’t know how to break in,” Beaver says. So he enrolled in UW–Madison’s PFMP.

PFMP students choose a specialty beyond French studies to explore in an international context. Options range from business and education to international development. Deitz recommends that all language students incorporate other disciplines into their study or find a specialty.

“Do something like a master’s degree or get specialized training in something, because if you don’t have specialized training in something, you’re going to float for a long time at that level of ‘I’m bilingual,’” Deitz says. “But who isn’t in the world?”

Kruse often refers undergraduates still trying to figure out their majors to other campus advising offices to get further guidance in exploring their interests. At his most recent workshop on marketing language skills, students cited interests in diplomacy and medical outreach.

Seek internships, make contacts

Kruse and Deitz recommend students who know what they want to do look into internships and networking, which play an important role in getting jobs. Students often get leads and find jobs through field experiences. PMFP students complete their program of study with an internship.

For PFMP alumna Christine Koprowski, a seven-month internship with a marketing research company in Paris helped her get a job in New Berlin, Wisconsin. Her employer sought her out after finding her resume on a job search website.

“The fact that I had completed an internship and that I was able to work well with another team, in another country, in another language was kind of what they were looking for, more than just knowing the language,” says Koprowski. “That intercultural communication aspect of it was what they were after.”

As a technical sales representative, she interacts in French and occasionally travels to Quebec.

Mia Johnson, who graduated with her bachelor’s in 2010, has completed internships in Russia and Puerto Rico through AIESEC, an international student network with internship resources, and also found a position in Croatia through TransitionsAbroad.com.

(To learn more about internships, go to UW-Madison International Internship Program)

In addition to taking advantage of internship opportunities, Johnson wishes she had spent more time making contacts.

“One thing that I think I would have done differently in the past is take advantage of knowing certain people a little more… networking better,” she says. “It’s one thing people really need to take advantage of nowadays.”

Beaver credits the networking skills he developed in the PFMP for helping him secure a job with Trek Bicycles, headquarted in Waterloo, Wisconsin. He says he learned how to “insert myself into a social situation,” and gained the confidence necessary to “get out there and get your name known.”

He met a Trek employee at a party, made contact with the company, and eventually got hired. He worked as a Canadian sales representative for four and a half years, and currently is an international customer service representative for Trek.

Promote soft skills

In addition to studying multiple disciplines, networking, and gaining real-world experience, students can promote themselves more effectively by understanding the inherent value of language skills.

When Heingartner visits middle and high schools to encourage student interests in languages and international studies, she emphasizes qualities inherent in language acquisition, such as being open-minded, goal oriented, and hard working.

Kruse makes students aware of soft skills that accompany language study, such as communications, teamwork, and problem-solving. Deitz emphasizes that language skills and travel make employees “flexible and supple” and able to “switch into this other way of seeing.”

Mia Johnson cites adaptability, flexibility, and resourcefulness as her most valuable skills, gained from years of language study, international travel, and various jobs. She has worked in Russia in marketing and language instruction, in Puerto Rico as a business analyst, and in France as a bike tour guide.

“That’s a huge skill of mine now, that I’m able to show to people I can pretty much pick up from anywhere and adapt to a new company or a new country,” says Johnson. “You have to push yourself outside your comfort zone to learn those skills.”

According to Kruse, sharing these soft skills in interviews is not always easy to do. He says employees and employers still need to learn the value of language acquisition. He tries to help students “understand what they’re actually learning when they learn a language.”

Although Kruse speaks Urdu and Hindi, he doesn’t use them in his daily duties. But he says his experiences abroad helped him get his current job, because he can relate to students’ travels and language study.

He says he was hired in part because internationally oriented programs around campus didn’t offer consistent services for undergraduates looking for academic and career advice. He helps students find resources for jobs and internships, and advises them on how to pitch their language skills on resumes and in interviews.

Recognize your assets

“Most students are very humble and either don’t recognize the skills that they have learned or don’t want to brag about it,” Kruse says. “Either they don’t think of it as a real skill, or a real world value, or they don’t know how to talk about it.”

He recalls one student who was applying for an internship in China, but neglected to mention six semesters of Chinese language study.

Those who graduate from UW–Madison with bachelor’s degrees in languages end up “all over the map,” Kruse says. Some work abroad and some use their language skills in the United States.

“Generally, it’s really hard to get an international position right after graduation,” he says. “It’s much more common that people will get a position in the U.S. that has some international focus, like a company that’s expanding internationally.”

The Wisconsin-based company that hired Koprowski has expanded into Canada and more recently into Mexico.

“My company is looking at [language speakers as] a value-added service they’re able to offer to their customers,” she says. “It’s a difficult time for everybody looking for a job right now. If anything, I think that having that French background gave me an edge in the process.”

Deitz ensures that PFMP students understand that not everyone can work abroad. Even those who get their dream job are “going to have to dig a ditch sometime,” he says, emphasizing that no one loves their job all the time.

He tells multilingual job seekers that “it’s going to be hard for awhile.”

But Mia Johnson, for one, remains up for the challenge. The change of seasons means her bike-touring job will end soon. She’s considering a graduate program in economics in France as her next step. She remains confident in the value of her language skills and the lessons that have come with travel and language acquisition.

“Knowing a language in today’s world can get you so many more opportunities,” she says, “because a language is a skill that a company can’t teach you. Learning a language is really something that comes from inside you.”

— by Nora G. Hertel