June 1, 2012

Assessing Language Proficiency

Essential skills profiles and assessment tools can help hiring managers determine if a candidate has the appropriate level of communication skills for a specific position.

When considering skilled immigrants for job openings, many hiring managers worry about their communication and language skills.

However, it’s important to remember an accent or unfamiliar expression isn’t a reflection of poor language skills. Therefore you should focus on the content of what the candidate’s saying, rather than how he’s saying it, to properly assess his English proficiency.

There are several resources to help HR professionals and hiring managers ensure a candidate’s English-language skills are at the appropriate level for the position.

Communication Skills: Essential or Nice-to-Have?

First, you need to determine what level of language and communication skills are required for the job. Some highly skilled positions, such as those in information technology or science, don’t require a high level of language skills. In these cases, remember to hire the candidate with the right essential skills for the job and then offer additional training to improve communication skills as needed.

For other jobs, such as business services or public relations, where communications is an essential skill rather than a nice-to-have, candidates will need a higher level of English-language skills.

To help you determine the language skills needed for a specific job, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada has developed essential skills profiles for all of the occupations on the National Occupational Classification (NOC) list. You can access the complete list of occupations or the searchable database. Even if the position you’re hiring for isn’t on the NOC list, you can find a comparable occupation to determine the level of language proficiency required.

The profiles detail the complexity level (from one to five) for each essential skill (including reading, writing and oral communication) required for each occupation. For example, the most important essential skills for an accounting clerk are numeracy, oral communication, problem solving and job task planning and organizing.

The profile states the complexity level for oral communication ranges from one to three and then gives examples of typical tasks (such as listening to simple messages on voicemail) and the corresponding complexity level (one).

Assessment Tools

The Readers’ Guide to Essential Skills Profiles can help you better use the profiles and there are free assessment toolsto help you evaluate a candidate’s proficiency.

The Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks has also developed national standards for measuring an individual’s English or French language proficiency. The benchmarks provide descriptions of twelve communicative proficiency levels in four skills: speaking, listening, reading and writing. The twelve levels are divided into three stages:

  • Basic Proficiency (Stage I – CLB Levels 1-4): Able to communicate in common and predictable settings to meet basic needs and to carry out everyday activities.
  • Intermediate Proficiency (Stage II – CLB Levels 5-8): Able to participate more fully in social, educational and work-related settings. The settings where English is used are less familiar and predictable and the individual is able to function more independently.
  • Advanced Proficiency (Stage III – CLB Levels 9-12): Able to communicate effectively, appropriately, accurately and fluently in most settings. Individuals communicate using language features such as appropriate style, register and formality.

Job candidates can have their language skills assessed at an assessment centre, which use CLB certified assessors. The CLB also sells a manual that provides organizations and HR professionals with a framework for assessing the language demands of a job and then developing a tool to assess candidates’ language abilities.

Building Language Skills

Keep in mind that a good candidate’s language skills can be improved through training or on-the-job experience and there are resources available to employers who want to provide additional English or communication training.

Many community agencies and schools provide free language courses for newcomers, especially through the Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) program. Citizenship and Immigration has a searchable database of services for newcomers, including language classes, as does the Settlement Road Map.

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