After 20+ years recruiting in the Information Technology space I’ve had to give my head a shake over the last few days. I am used to everything from significant foreign accents, to new immigrants with broken English, to engineers focused on the technology and not the people or the conversation in front of them. As a recruiter, I always talk about the skills gap, the hot skills in-demand in the engineering or technology world but the one that I see lacking most often in otherwise well qualified candidates; poor English language skills and more specifically, poor communication skills. As a recruiter, it’s hard not to recognize what’s missing; a lack of recognition for solid communication skills for basic interviewing and professional work environments.

That lack of recognition extends to home grown Canadians and Americans whose first and only language is English. Interviewing almost 30 candidates over the last few days for a technology position has shown me that a focus on communication skills seems even more lost on native speakers than it is on newcomers.

What is the difference between poor English skills and poor communication skills? Here are some highlights from this week.

A relative newcomer from Korea was my muse for this article. In Canada for just over a year and a half she spoke surprisingly good English with an accent. She had realized early that in order to succeed here, she didn’t need to just speak the language, but speak it well. Her biggest hurdle was one that many immigrants face, her first job in her new country was working within her ethnic community in her native language, as opposed to practising English all day through regular interaction with other employees and customers. Her desire to change companies was primarily so she could work in an English language environment to practice and improve her communication skills. Commendable. She was a strong communicator even though her command of the English language left something to be desired.

Another stand out interview was a born and bred Canadian, English as his first (and only) language. Highly skilled technically but unable to articulate his experience, carry on a substantive conversation or even recognize that the interview was painful for me and not going well for him. His ability to speak the language fluently did not grant him the skill of being a strong and effective communicator. I see far more of this type of technical candidate, whether a new immigrant or local. People who learn the basics or think their English is just fine because they got through school, passed an English as a Second Language course or speak it regularly at home. They don’t see communicating as a skill.

Job seekers often fail to realize what hiring managers and recruiters already know; excellent communicators have a competitive advantage that often trumps pure technical skill sets. Excellent communication skills, often the last line of job descriptions are really top of mind during the opening moments of an interview. Communicating is the first substantive impression you give in an interview. To ignore this critical skill will limit your career and destine you to perpetual underemployment.