For employers in Anglophone Canada serving French-speaking clients and customers (common in Ontario), bilingual staff can be essential. For job seekers, French skills can bring significant benefits but also act as a career determinant. This discussion of findings from ICTC’s recent study, Mapping Career Pathways for Ontario’s Francophone and Bilingual Workforce, highlights important tips for new workforce entrants with bilingual skills. It closes with a few pointers for employers looking to hire and retain bilingual talent.
From the Research:
Who Did We Speak With?
We asked current and prospective students of Francophone post-secondary schools in Canada why they were interested in pursuing higher education in French, what they were studying, and where they saw their careers going. We also asked Francophone professionals in Ontario about the role language skills played in their careers. Finally, we looked at data on occupations and language use to examine where most French speakers ended up working.
Each of these sources of data told a different story, but together, they reinforce one important lesson: that French language skills can play a determining factor in one’s career path, for better or worse, and that careful consideration for how best to leverage this skill can help new workforce entrants make the most of their bilingualism. Importantly, the findings from this research are most relevant to Ontario, a province with close ties with French-speaking businesses in Quebec and internationally, with a significant Franco-Ontarian community, and home to most of the federal public service jobs requiring bilingual skills.
How Do French Language Skills Impact Career Goals?
French-speaking students and prospective students surveyed in our recent report were interested in pursuing many different fields: education, social sciences, engineering, computer science, and business were some of the most common programs listed. However, when asked what sector they “anticipated being employed in” after graduation, about half listed the public sector.
The federal public service does indeed provide significant employment for bilingual workers in Ontario (in 2021, there were about 67,000 federal bilingual positions in Ottawa alone; see page 26 of the report). Yet, this perhaps narrow awareness of job opportunities from students may point to a different challenge: students might assume public sector work is the only path available.
How Do French Language Skills Impact Career Trajectories?
Few skills hold such primacy in someone’s career as language skills. They can supersede other education and training. In our study, professionals told stories of being pulled into roles outside of their expertise because of their bilingualism:
“I have only two or three years of experience in recruitment. I get contacted very regularly, just by the simple fact that I speak French, whereas I have colleagues who have about the same years of experience and don’t speak French, and they get fewer messages from people.”
“In my next job, would I take just an English-speaking role? I wouldn’t be paid as much as [I would] if I kept the bilingual title. And it’s harder to make that switch once you’ve identified yourself as bilingual. For instance, once you have that on your resume and you’re applying for an English-speaking role, your employer will say, ‘Hey, why don’t you want to continue working in French?’”
“I often think someone who is bilingual can receive an opportunity without having the required experience. We’re willing to take someone who shows an interest in finance or is willing to be trained because the French language is the non-trainable aspect of the requirements.”
“I applied to an interesting [unilingual] position, but I used my bilingual resume, and the person at [company] was like, ‘Why are you applying to this role and not this other one? It’s a bilingual role, and it pays better….’ When I was first hired, I outright said that I didn’t have a background in the role. It was repeated often to me that ‘we can teach you accounting, but we can’t teach you to speak French.’”
In What Occupations Are Most French Speakers in Ontario Working?
Just over 4% of Ontarians report French as one of their mother tongues. The most common three occupation categories for native French speakers in Ontario are as follows:
- Sales and service occupations (70,645 workers whose mother tongue includes French)
- Business, finance, and administration occupations (64,575)
- Occupations in education, law, social, community and government services (57,345)
When we spoke with employers and recruiters in these fields, they commented that French speakers were essential to help serve clients in Quebec, Franco-Ontarian communities, and French-speaking companies internationally. They also mentioned high turnover, salary premiums, and, in general, high demand for bilingual skills.
In short, bilingual ability is an asset employers are searching for and will often pay more for in places like Ontario, where such skills are in demand but lack supply. However, bilingual workers, students, and new workforce entrants should be aware of how bilingualism can inadvertently shape their careers and be equipped to use their linguistic skills to their best advantage.
Research participants in this study offered two sets of important tips for new workforce entrants with bilingual skills and employers seeking to attract and retain bilingual workers.
Tips for Bilingual New Workforce Entrants in Ontario
Explore Your Options
- There is demand for bilingual skills in the private sector and public sector, but career paths need not be constrained by linguistic skills: the whole economy is open to bilingual workers, and new entrants have the agency to determine if they wish to take positions based on language or other types of skills and experience (or both).
- New entrants can explore labour market demand data in their region. Most labour market data will not specifically mention bilingual skills; nevertheless, it is important to be equipped with information about who employers need across the economy and why.
Grow Your Network
- Are you hearing the same story about the best industry for French speakers? Reach out to bilingual professionals across sectors and occupations to ask about their experiences and advice. Try more than one employment office or recruitment agency.
- For French speakers without Canadian experience, building a network can help secure a foot in the door. Settlement services specific to French speakers, work-integrated learning in post-secondary institutions, and other organizations that actively build connections with employers of bilingual and Francophone workers have existing networks that can help new workforce entrants from outside Canada. In Ontario, such organizations include Coopération Intégration Canada, OCASI, and La Passerelle-I.D.É.
Evaluate Your Worth Early
- If a role makes specific mention of French as an asset, or if the interviewer mentions that language skills will be needed, consider asking questions during the interview about how French skills might impact the job description.
- Research a company before interviewing (e.g., using LinkedIn) to assess the number of French speakers in titles similar to the job post. Or, in the interview, ask if other French speakers are in the same role.
- Before interviewing, research the company’s services and become familiar with its market, including whether it has Francophone clients.
Know Your Limits
- Given the high demand for bilingual workers in Ontario, subject matter experts suggested that intermediate French speakers work through linguistic insecurities and develop their language on the job, with the following caveat:
- “We all have areas that we’re not as strong in, and it’s important to know what you’re capable of…. because oftentimes, they’ll hire a bilingual individual and then all the work will go to you if you’re the only one. So, know your limits and then ensure that you’re joining a team that will have support and resources there for you.” – Mid-career Bilingual Professional in Ontario
- If new workers find their job descriptions expanding with tasks like ad-hoc translation or Francophone client management, understanding when to set boundaries is important.
Leverage Your Skill Set
- About 12% of surveyed employers with bilingual hiring needs in Ontario reported offering a bilingual signing bonus, and 4% reported offering a higher base salary. Depending on the industry and the options available to applicants (e.g., if a job seeker has more than one job offer), they might be able to negotiate higher compensation for their language skills.
- If a company conducts performance reviews, bring up extra tasks and responsibilities completed during this time as a conversation starter.
Tips for Hiring and Retaining French-Speaking Staff in Ontario
Provide Support and Skills Development
- Invest in French language tools (e.g., French keyboards, French grammar and spelling tools)
- Provide bilingual policies, procedures, and documentation (e.g., translated email signatures and titles, clear guidance about responsibility for tasks requiring French)
- Offer English language skill development for Francophone professionals who wish to improve their English, and French language training for Anglophone professionals who wish to improve their French
- Provide transparent career progression pathways for roles that include bilingual skills and offer relevant upskilling
- Think through and articulate job expectations clearly prior to hiring (e.g., consider what unexpected tasks a new hire might be asked to complete based on their ability to speak French)
- Build additional duties into employees’ job descriptions and ensure that title and seniority are appropriate to these tasks
- Bilingual staff often are expected to complete additional tasks such as ad-hoc translation not required of their unilingual counterparts. Checking in with staff to identify tasks above their typical workload may help with retention.
Pay for Language Skills
- Some organizations in Ontario offer higher base salaries and bilingual premiums to French-speaking staff. Providing competitive salaries (if possible) is essential to both hiring and retaining staff with high-value skills that are scarce and difficult to train.
Invest in Partnerships and Onboarding
- Build long-term community with Francophone post-secondary institutions, French newcomer settlement organizations, and other community organizations. Partnerships can create opportunities for organizations to hire and foster new bilingual talent and build a network of bilingual professionals who can offer advice on the best online forums or job posting sites for reaching bilingual job seekers.
- Mentor early-career Francophone professionals or students through work-integrated learning (WIL) or seek out Francophone newcomers to Canada; create welcoming workplaces for new entrants and new immigrants to set positive first experiences on the job or in Canada.
- Hire French-speaking staff for roles that match their skill sets and career goals. Several surveyed Francophone professionals reported that some employers had suggested they accept roles outside of their skill sets to fill language skills gaps.
Bilingualism in Canada’s official languages is an in-demand skill, especially in Ontario. Understanding the implications of this powerful skill can help both employers and job seekers succeed.