Working in English Language Services

Editor's note: In his first article, Benjamin Hemmens explained his decision to turn his back on postdoctoral research. Here he describes what he left it for.

For the last 3 years I've been working in the language services industry here in Graz, in southeast Austria; initially working for a local language school, for the last year I have been completely self-employed.

My career transition began with realising that I wanted to move from research into an area that would place my language and writing skills more in the centre of what I was being paid for. As a first step I started working as an English teacher, thinking of it at first as a temporary step while I looked around for a "real" job in industry.

I found myself teaching in a wide variety of companies around this region. There is quite a spread of manufacturing industry here. The sectors most interesting for me in the area are pharmaceuticals, chemicals (resins and plastics), electronic components, various other kinds of electrical and mechanical engineering including waste-processing technology, other aspects of environmental services, and transportation/mobility consulting. All of these companies are both strongly export-oriented and/or increasingly integrated into multinational operations. English is the language of choice for all communications outside the German-speaking countries. It is also on the rise as the language of internal communications. It may be required for relations with regulatory authorities (e.g., U.S. Food and Drug Administration audits) or in EU-sponsored projects.

Few of my students had ever experienced an English teacher with a scientific or technical background. This is not that surprising, given that larger commercial language schools do not pay at a level commensurate with scientific qualifications. But it leaves people in companies largely up to their own devices when it comes to communicating with the outside world. To some extent the need is met by a scattering of English-speaking staff within the company. Rarely, though, are these English speakers paid explicitly for their help with English. All kinds of communication are involved, although often the emphasis is on something other than "normal" conversation. Thus one may find people who can deal with the language of process documentation in written form but have difficulty with a simple everyday chat. Scientists can often manage the passive voice while not being able to use present, past, and future tenses in conversation.

These profiles of existing language skills and needs often don't fit into major language schools' "standard" programmes. Yet for a teacher, a technical way of thinking is needed in order to enter the kind of dialogue with company employees that is needed to explore and meet their specific English needs. Thus something that was simply an unremarkable feature of my life for several years turned into a key qualification: I had worked exclusively in German throughout my time as a postdoc.

High Demand for High-Quality English

Companies also need high-quality English texts. There are areas of communication where local translators (and there are plenty of general translation agencies in the region) will be sufficient. Where it becomes really critical to have a native speaker is with texts that have any kind of marketing function. In product brochures or Web sites, for example, the English must be both grammatically and lexically perfect, must convey the content accurately, and must have a highly readable, attractive style that conveys the right image. No one but a scientifically educated native speaker can produce this material. What is also crucial is for the translator to work directly with the customer, often sitting down and working through a document side by side. Translation agencies (for obvious reasons) avoid like the plague giving their translators direct access to the customers. The result is that the highest quality technical translations need to be done by self-employed people working directly and locally with the customer.

At the beginning of my time as a teacher, I was still envisaging going to work as a medical writer in a pharmaceutical company, as a patent officer, or as an editor in a scientific publishing house. Seeing the needs for both training and text services in local companies, however, made me think that there was a niche for me here. And as living costs here are low, the stage was set for me to see if I could make a go of it on my own. I was actually quite surprised at how well paid Web site translating could be. I was lucky that a string of decent-sized jobs fell into my lap through various contacts and this gave me some good initial practice.

More recently, I've taken up teaching again, this time on my own. This represents quite a big challenge in terms of organizing and creating course material. This is a relatively large investment of time compared to my immediate earnings. Another fairly large financial layout is getting illustrations made professionally. In this way, teaching is a less efficient way of making money directly than text work. My main reason for doing it is simply that I am hooked on the activity of language teaching for its own sake. On the other hand, it pays dividends in terms of getting to know people and getting close to areas of work in companies where other services are needed. A course participant recently came across with a translation job on some standard operating procedures having previously suffered at the hands of a very inadequate German agency. There might be an opening for helping out with crucial visits by English-speaking people, such as external audits.

This combination of teaching, translating, and general flexible help is analogous to what I was doing--while not being paid for it--in my previous research job. My dream is to serve a small handful of regular clients in this way; to make myself semi-indispensable as the person for English and yet not too dependent on any single client. This seems to be very achievable.

As for advertising, I still haven't done any and so much work comes along simply by word of mouth that I am almost afraid to advertise. I am putting a good deal of effort into the "setting-up" activities that still need a lot of time (procedures, contracts, Web site, teaching material) and I want to be sure these things are under control before I stimulate too much demand. I am also sizing up various acquaintances as prospective subcontractors to take off some of the pressure if things get too hectic. My visions of a cooperative network of self-employed service providers are another chapter.

But Is It a Sustainable Business?

As to whether this is becoming a sustainable business that I can live from, I think the time to make a judgement will be in a year or so from now; in other words, about 2 years after starting. I have financed the necessary investments (equipping my office and subsidizing my living expenses) out of an inheritance, so I don't have to answer to a bank. However, all told, my start-up investment looks like reaching a total of no more than ?20,000, which is hardly astronomical and might well be financed by a bank anyway. My break-even point is a turnover of about ?2000 per month and I expect that I should be able to reach a sustainable turnover of between ?3000 to ?4000 per month within the next year.

The long-term prospects--in 15 to 20 years--may not be so rosy. The generation of Austrian kids going to grade school now may grow up being so fluent in English that people like me will be redundant. On the other hand, the whole exercise of the last few years has made me confident that if I do what I do best and love doing it, someone will want to pay me for it. I'm sure something will turn up.

Coming soon: In the final instalment of his story, Ben reflects on how the niche he has created for himself differs from his working life as a postdoc and why his new lifestyle has made him happier.

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