Posted by

Mike Spicer, Head of Research, British Chambers of Commerce

12 Jun 2013


Today, the BCC publishes the second in its 2013 series of reports on the export economy Exporting is Good for Britain But....Knowledge Gaps and Language Skills Hold Back Exporters. The report draws on the findings of our annual international trade survey – the largest of its kind in the UK with well over 4,600 responses.

The results show that while there has been some positive movement since 2012, companies continue to be held back from exporting by lack of knowledge and poor foreign language skills. The manufacturing and IT sectors – both with huge export potential – cited the largest export skills shortages: 17% of non-exporting manufacturers and 13% of non-exporting IT companies claimed not to export because of limited knowledge of the commercial aspects of the process. And 70% of all respondents had no foreign language ability at all.  Being able to speak the language of potential customers is very important - particularly outside the largest cities and administrative centres where knowledge of English is often patchier. It can help to establish mutual confidence. Across non-exporters, 18% indicated language barriers influence if, when and where to enter international markets.

I found myself thinking about the connection between skills, knowhow and export performance on a recent trip to Scotland. Last week I had the pleasure of travelling north of the border to meet with members of Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber. Of course, the area is well-known for its booming oil industry and  you get a real sense of this driving from Dyce airport as helicopters roar overhead, racing workers back and forth from the rigs.

Aberdeen is unique in economic terms but as I soon learned, there’s a story here about export skills that holds lessons for businesses right across the UK. Because beyond the platforms and the installations there are businesses – many of them small and locally-based  – which support the industry in myriad ways. From business-process management to health & safety compliance, legal support to equipment supplies, companies are using what they’ve learned from serving the North Sea oil industry to break into markets like the Middle East and the Gulf of Mexico in the States.

For the companies which had successfully made the leap, it was sometimes a case of trial and error: adapting their products, sales and marketing techniques to the demands of the local market as they grew in experience. ‘Do your homework – and do it properly’ was the advice from those who’d been there and done it.

In the report we make three recommendations which I think reflect the experience of these companies: put commercial export skills at the core of business education; encourage the take-up of trade training; and re-establish foreign languages as core subjects within national curriculum and in workplace training. Trial and error will always have its place, but understanding the pitfalls and opportunities upfront, knowing how to put together a winning export strategy saves time and money. Ultimately it supports success.