Recruiting and race

It’s graduate recruitment season, and I’ve been talking to lots of people about how to get the best graduates I can find into my team (I recruit about two a year, depending on how good the candidates are).

I’ve been unpleasantly surprised at how often the conversation turns to race. It goes something like this.

“There are a lot more asians coming out of university these days. They’ve got great marks, but it’s a shame that they are just not as good at communication skills as the (anglo) graduates we used to get in the old days. It’s much harder to find good people than it used to be”

It really makes my blood boil, but I haven’t quite figured out how to respond in a way that makes it clear how unacceptable I find it, but also makes it clear what rubbish they are talking.

But for the record, this is why it is complete rubbish.

The actuarial profession is made up of people who are very good at mathematics. To get to being an actuarial graduate means that they have spent most of their education to the point of graduation concentrating on mathematical subjects – those that require a lot less ability to write and present than (say) a legal or economics degree. As a group, they come out with below average communications skills. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they can’t learn communication skills. These are bright people, and some of them end up extraordinarily good communicators – even many who left university without much skill in that area. But at that entry point, they aren’t the best.

That has always been true. It was certainly true in my year at university, and true, on average, of the people I knew around the same vintage. In the old days, employers would bemoan the bad teaching of the universities and the schools, and complain about how nobody could write a good sentence. But now, the lazy, racist, argument is to blame it all on the radical influx of “the asians” into actuarial degrees.

On to specifics. Of course, “asians” are not, and have never been a homogenous group. In Britain, to call someone “asian” means that they are from the Indian subcontinent. In Australia, it means they are from East Asia.

In my working life I have worked (in Australia, not counting my work up in Asia) with “asians” who were:

  • born in Australia of chinese immigrant parents, and spoke english at home
  • vietnamese refugees arriving here as young children, but still speaking vietnamese at home
  • grew up and went to university in Singapore and only ever spoke english
  • from mainland china, arriving here in late high school speaking no english
  • Malay from Malaysia, speaking malay as a first language, but educated in english (in Malaysia)
  • Chinese from Malaysia, speaking english as a first language, late school and university in Australia
  • Philipina, Tagalog first language, but educated in english
  • From Hong Kong, educated there, first language cantonese, but educated in english
  • and quite a few people from various parts of the subcontinent, but I won’t count them because most Australians don’t.

If I look at this extraordinary diverse list as a group, I know some who are fantastic communicators (some with non Australian accents, some without) and some who are very stereotypical actuaries who won’t talk to anyone if they can avoid it. And if I look at the same number of randomly chosen actuaries who I have worked with who are not asian, I don’t believe the proportions would be any different.

I think I need to work on my communication skills for this one, because it is a conversation I’ve been having more and more often.

  2 comments for “Recruiting and race

  1. June 29, 2007 at 8:10 am

    I’m drearily familiar with it (I work for a university careers service and meet a lot of accountants recruiting graduates!) Over here, employers are starting to talk about how they only want to recruit ‘Asians’ (i.e. your list above) because they don’t get any of that “crap about work-life balance that English students seem to expect…”

  2. July 3, 2007 at 3:14 pm

    My husband is from the Philippines and his entire education has been in English. After 6 years in Australia, he speaks English more naturally than Tagalog and has excellent communication skills. He even taught English for a while when we were living in Japan! But he still gets the tired old remarks about his English skills. I think people get language ability confused with accent a lot of the time and it infuriates me. Not to mention the fact that a non-European appearance seems to automatically trigger these remarks.

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