English is key to employment

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 July, 2007, 12:00am

Macau locals have some catching up to do if they want top jobs

Macau's booming economy has far outstripped the region's ability to prepare its workforce, with many employees struggling to keep pace with the ever-changing demands of their jobs.

As foreign investment and visitors pour into the gaming hub, frustrated employers have been left with little choice but to look offshore for skilled labour.

Professor of English education at the University of Macau, Sylvia Ieong Sao Leng, said communication was one of the key skills employers were looking for, and people who spoke English were in demand.

'You only have to look at the international airport of Macau and all the workers are from the Philippines and other countries from Southeast Asia,' Dr Ieong said.

'Everyone from the ground staff to cleaners and office workers can speak English. It is one of the major requirements of their job.'

Although English is compulsory in Macau schools, many students finish their education unable to speak the language.

Dr Ieong said the speed with which Macau was opening up through foreign investment had far outpaced the education system's ability to teach English to local students. This presented a serious problem for locals trying to compete and secure jobs in what was now an international market.

'The reality is that many people do not have the English-speaking ability to fulfil the needs of their jobs, which can involve dealing with the thousands of international tourists who visit each year.

'It is fact that all the top jobs in Macau are going to expatriates who speak good English.'

Dr Ieong said there were many jobs but not enough suitable people to fill them because their language proficiency was not good enough.

Deputy director of the Macau Polytechnic Institute (MPI)-Bell Centre of English, David Quartermain, said the problem was the way English was taught.

He said it was common for students to finish school able to read and write, but not to communicate.

Dr Ieong said the school system needed to be more flexible and teachers should be discouraged from relying too heavily on textbooks. She said classroom innovation was the key, and less emphasis should be placed on memorising and rote learning.

'Students are assessed by how much they learn from a grammar book, but that is a lot different from what they can actually do with the language,' she said.

'It doesn't really matter if you can answer an obscure multiple choice grammar question, you need to be able to communicate.'

Nathan Fox is programme co-ordinator at English for Asia, a privately-run language centre which offers tutorials and provides native English-speaking teachers to schools to deliver the spoken element of lessons. Students are taken on excursions in Macau to practise their English with tourists.

'Over the past three years there has been a real push to upgrade English in Macau,' he said.

Mr Fox said the massive influx of foreign investment had been a wake-up call to parents who now saw English as a key skill.

'We have parents encouraging their children to do more lessons after school and on the weekends because they want them to have every opportunity,' he said.

Having Portuguese and Chinese as the official languages of Macau further complicates the matter.

According to Mr Quartermain, there is a marked difference between the level of English proficiency in Hong Kong and Macau.

'In Hong Kong, English has always been a recognised language and, to be fair, Macau does not have the history as a British colony.'

'Individuals now realise how important English is to their careers and are doing something about it by seeking help. Portuguese has a place in Macau's history, but English is its future.'

There is no doubt that teaching English is a booming industry. The MPI-Bell Centre of English was established four years ago with a teaching staff of three. It is now recruiting its 10th teacher.

The centre caters for more than 500 students, a figure which is expected to grow rapidly in the next year, and has attracted teachers from around the globe.

Mr Quartermain said the lack of interest by many of Macau's major companies to support their workers to learn English was disappointing. He said most students were young professionals who paid for their own lessons and did them in their own time.

But Dr Ieong said the government was the key to solving the problem, and that things were starting to change.

Recent initiatives include school programmes aimed at encouraging English, projects to improve teaching skills and further funding. Of the 86 schools in Macau, more than 70 are privately run.

'They are very traditional and tradition dies hard,' Dr Ieong said. 'Macau has a tradition of memorising and rote learning when it comes to English, but that is changing and it is in the classrooms where it will make the biggest difference.'

Growing need

Macau is growing faster than it can turn out students who are proficient in English

Lack of English-speaking residents is a major economic concern

Thousands of school students spend years learning English and yet cannot speak the language

Expatriates are securing all the good jobs

Teaching English is a booming industry