Localization Business School: The talent trap

There are some cool careers in localization. You probably aren’t qualified for them — but you might get the job anyway. Here’s why.

According to Attracting and Developing Talent (ADT), a LocWorld initiative, many people looking to begin a career in localization lack the proper training and hard skills needed for the field, especially in the areas of translation, technology and business. That’s scary — are these not at the core of localization? And if the coolest companies on the planet such as Google, Facebook and Apple have trouble attracting the right talent, the rest of us may be in trouble.

If you want to know how bad the problem is, just place a job posting on LinkedIn or Indeed for a developer who understands localization. They don’t seem to exist. Even decent translators are in short supply. Translation buyers and vendors alike find themselves turning away college graduates who do not even know the basics of grammar, punctuation or sentence structure.

At fault are not the job candidates themselves, but the very institutions that educate them. Colleges and universities are guilty of driving an entire generation into debt and in return “educating” them for “nothing in particular.” Paypal founder Peter Thiel summarizes it best in his book Zero to One: “In middle school, we’re encouraged to start hoarding ‘extracurricular activities.’ In high school, ambitious students compete even harder to appear omnicompetent. By the time a student gets to college, he or she has spent a decade curating a bewilderingly diverse résumé to prepare for a completely unknowable future. Come what may, he or she is ready — for nothing in particular.”

Colleges and universities call it a “rounded education.” According to Thiel, the students who do specialize “become extremely skilled at a few specialties, but many never learn what to do with those skills in the wider world.”

The result: In the United States, 37% of college students are underemployed and 19.5% are unemployed. In India, one in three graduates up to the age of 29 is unemployed. In China, the unemployment rate for college graduates could be close to 30% — some 2.3 million unemployed from last year’s graduating cohort alone, according to Joseph Cheng, professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong.

A recent survey conducted by Intel found that 39% of employers say a skills shortage is a leading reason for entry-level vacancies. 61% of employers surveyed in India, and 85% in Japan, said talent shortages prevented them from hiring people with needed skills.

To make matters worse, colleges are sending unprepared or unqualified students into the work world buried under a mountain of debt from paying for their education. College debt in the United States trumps mortgages and credit card debt combined.

It’s not only an American problem. While colleges in Sweden are totally free, 85% of Swedish students graduate with debt, versus only 50% in the United States. In the United Kingdom, the government expects the value of outstanding student loans to reach over £100 billion. And while a college education in Germany is free, Germans pay for it with a total tax wedge of 49.5% versus 31.5% in the United States, according to the latest report from Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD. Colleges do cost money, and someone has to pay for it. For example, one student in Berlin costs the country, on average, €13,300 ($14,600) a year.

Germany’s news magazine Der Spiegel reports that about 21% of German students suffer from depression, anxiety or psychological strain. About a third of German students drop out of college as a result.

The question is, where does this leave us in localization? When students are being betrayed by the institutions that are supposed to prepare them for the future, where will our new talent come from? How do we create a future for a new generation within our companies?


Education in our own hands

Employers in localization need to recognize that a college degree shouldn’t be the chief entry-level qualification for new hires. Other criteria can play an additional role or even replace a college degree completely. Our understanding of job eligibility needs to evolve in order for us to look beyond an expensive piece of paper. We can accomplish this by evaluating applicants not on their degree, but on the quality of their character.

So, keep an eye out for the best learners and problem solvers. Look for good judgment and the ability to get the job done. Find people who are most willing to work hard. And equally important, identify the ones who are the most likable and pleasant in their interactions with others. As the Harvard Business Review states, “Employees who are smarter, nicer, and more hardworking than their peers will always be in demand.”

The challenge for employers is how to do this. There has been much innovation in talent identification over the past five years — including the use of algorithms to translate people’s web and social media activity into a quantitative estimate of job potential or fit. In the digital age, LinkedIn endorsements and recommendations — but also comments, photos and videos posted by colleagues, clients, friends and family on social media — often can tell employers more about a person than a college degree.

Using new tracking and analytic tools, employers are learning to value adaptability, social and emotional intelligence, resilience and friendliness, as well as raw intelligence.

Companies such as Southwest Airlines demonstrate that hiring for attitude and training for skills is the right way to go. College grads have been conned into an inadequate education, and you will need to invest the time and effort to fill in the gaps. If you hire someone who’s willing to learn, your job will be a lot easier.


Everything is figureoutable

One phrase you hear a lot at our company is “everything is figureoutable” (courtesy of Marie Forleo). Ten years ago, online resources were limited and students were dependent on a good library, great teachers and professors. Today, we can educate ourselves just as well without them, and often even better. Google and Bing give us access to almost all the knowledge we need in order to teach ourselves new skills. We will take a self-learner over someone with a formal degree any day.

Consulting firm Ernst & Young announced in September 2015 that it will be removing the degree classification from its entry criteria, saying there is “no evidence” success at university correlates with achievement in later life. There are now “open opportunities for talented individuals regardless of their background” in the company.

Gaenor Bagley, board member and head of people at Pricewaterhouse-Coopers announced last May that “as a progressive employer we recognize that talent and potential presents itself in different ways and at different stages in people’s lives. By breaking down social barriers we will open the door to thousands of students who may have previously thought a graduate role with PricewaterhouseCoopers was out of reach for them.”

Google does not ask for GPA or test scores from candidates anymore, because they don’t correlate with success at the company. Google’s senior vice president of people operations Laszlo Bock explains that “Academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment.”

Of course, statistically, college is still the surest way of learning advanced engineering and other skills that get you a job at Google. But the winds are changing.

And even the most prestigious institutions have looked beyond formal degrees for years. In 1999 the World Bank headhunted me to become the head of its translation and interpretation unit. As a college drop-out, I was the least formally qualified for a job that required either a PhD or an MBA. Nonetheless, after shortlisting 84 candidates, and interviewing eight of them in two-day marathon meetings, they tweaked the Bank’s HR system to get me on board.