En français svp: French “important barrier” to job market access

En français svp: French “important barrier” to job market access

Nearly three-quarters of job openings declared with the Adem jobs centre in 2022 listed French as a mandatory requirement and French remains the most commonly spoken language in the Luxembourg workplace, followed by English, Luxembourgish and German.

“The overall requirement has not changed over the past years,” a spokesperson for Adem said in an email. If anything, more jobs now require a higher level of French. While in 2017, a quarter of vacancies asked for C-level French skills, this number was up to 29% last year.

The number of jobs requiring English has increased from 41% in 2017 to 51% in 2022.

Between 25-30% of jobseekers registered with Adem do not know B or C-level French, the spokesperson said. “In some sectors this might be acceptable, but oftentimes it is an important barrier to employment. For Luxembourg nationals, this is much less of a problem.”

Adem offers basic language classes in French, Luxembourgish, English and German “in sectors experiencing a labour shortage”, from construction and hospitality to IT and finance.

More than just language

“In their tasks, they can speak English,” said Chaffa Zaroui about staff who don’t speak French. “It’s the integration in the company that’s the problem.” Zaroui is the founder of Fidès Executive Partner, a recruitment firm specialising in the financial sector.

“It’s not just language,” she said, but also cultural differences and how a person fits into a company. “It’s an effort. It’s already difficult to integrate someone who speaks the same language. And if it’s someone who doesn’t speak the same language as everybody else, it’s even more complicated.”

It’s easier to onboard a cross-border worker than hire someone from outside the country, said Zaroui, and there is perhaps a certain amount of laziness, of not wanting to inconvenience a majority French-speaking staff–thanks to roughly 150,000 cross-border commuters from France and Belgium–with an employee who doesn’t speak the language.

Even though there is a shortage of talent, companies frequently refuse to interview candidates who don’t speak French, Zaroui said, leaving the post open for longer or preferring to hire an applicant with lower qualifications or less experience if they speak the language.

When companies hire non-French speakers, it’s usually a condition that the new joiners commit to learning the language.

Losing out in the war for talent

“Most of the companies we are working with hire non-EU citizens and have English as their company language,” said Stéphane Compain of relocation company LuxRelo. However, many of the recruiters he speaks to report that they are looking for French-speaking talent. “I’m always surprised.”

Compain has been in Luxembourg for 23 years and said the country has evolved significantly since then. In shops and restaurants, staff speak English, and administrative services are available in the language.

“I really see the trend from 23 years ago, that you would be lost without French,” he said. “But it’s true, when people ask us which language they should learn first–in Luxembourg it should be Luxembourgish–the one that gets you the furthest is French.”

As companies listed attracting staff as a top challenge for 2023 in a recent Chamber of Commerce survey, those requiring French as a prerequisite risk falling behind, Compain said, adding that in the war for talent “companies that never used to hire outside of the greater region are starting to hire from further away.”

Even the civil service in some specialities, such as IT, is recruiting people outside of its usual requirement to speak Luxembourgish, French and German, Compain said. But like Zaroui, Compain, too, has found that many companies in the financial sector still look for French-speakers. Accompanying spouses can also suffer from a linguistic disadvantage.

Year-long job search

For Devita*, the problem is somewhat ironic. Originally from India, she currently works in Paris at an international company that does not require her to speak French. “But when I started searching for jobs in Luxembourg, I had a lot of rejections,” she said. “I’m looking in finance–accounting and taxation.”

Devita is wanting to join her partner who already lives and works in the grand duchy. “I never expected it to be this hard,” she said, adding that she thought she would find work within two or three months. It’s been almost a year.

Learning a foreign language at professional capacity later in life is challenging, she said, with English already being a second language. “I’m working on my language skills, but it’s not that easy for me to learn. My profession is quite hectic. I have less time.”

While she has learnt some conversational French, it’s not at professional proficiency. In around 80% of failed applications, Devita said her lack of language skills was to blame. In the other 20%, companies did not want to hire third-country nationals and go through work permit procedures. “I’m still trying.”

*The interviewee’s name has been changed at her request.

Related Articles