US interpreting boom and turmoil Takeaways from ALC Annual conference 2019 in washington DC
Mid-sized interpreting businesses are moving leaps and bounds in the United States, but they face regulatory threats and a rapid technological advance. These changes turned out to be the most important topic at the ALC 2019 Annual Conference.
Developments at ALC 2019: more players, tech, and models
The Association of Language Companies Annual Conference has been held in Washington, DC this year. It is the mainstay event for the US mid-sized LSPs and those interested in this audience. The 2019 conference attracted more than 150 participants and included a few surprise developments.
Scott Klein, the CEO and president of LanguageLine, the largest interpreting company in the world, arrived in person and made an unexpected announcement inviting other LSPs to join the LanguageLine network and work under the LanguageLine brand. Whitelabeling services is not unheard of in the industry, and the best example is Star Group in Switzerland which comprises a network of co-owned companies under a single brand. This case is different though because the largest company in the sector is offering partnerships to extend and diversify its client base.
Another surprise move came from SOSi: this US government and defense contractor sponsored the conference. What would an army provider want at an event that did not number government and army procurers in the audience? Most likely, the next step for SOSi’s language services business unit is to expand into the private sector. With an existing language services portfolio estimated at more than USD 100 million, SOSi might become a powerful competitor to other LSPs, and a strong player in the acquisitions game.
The conference featured nine different providers of interpreting technology as sponsors and exhibitors: Interpreter Intelligence, Boostlingo, Fluency, Lango, uSked (booking), Schedule Interpreter, KUDO (Conference Rental), Total Language, and Plunet. There has not been such variety in interpreting tech at a single industry conference so far in our experience. Technology offerings included booking management and CRM tailored for interpreting, delivery systems for remote consecutive and conference simultaneous scenarios, and marketplaces. Machine interpreting and other forms of “interpreting AI” haven’t made their appearance yet – at least not strongly.
Finally, sign language providers made a strong impact at the ALC event: the whole conference was interpreted in American Sign Language, and among the exhibitors, there was Sorenson Communications, a company with a large network in the US, rival to another significant provider, Purple communications.
Background: the US interpreting paradise
The interpreting market in the United States is the largest of its kind in the whole world. According to the ALC survey developed by Nimdzi in 2019, the average growth rate for medium and small companies in the survey has been 12 percent last year, with interpreting responsible for more than half of business. Furthermore, interpreting companies made the majority of the fastest-growing companies among the survey participants.
While the largest companies in the sector have seen moderate growth, 5.7 percent for Cyracom and 6.6 percent for LanguageLine year to year, smaller and mid-sized providers are enjoying what seems to be a boom in business activity.
In the US, demand worth billions of dollars stems from regulations on language access. US citizens can’t be discriminated against by race or language. For example, when a citizen without a working knowledge of English goes to a hospital, that hospital must provide an interpreter and pay for the services. The patient to whom the language access has been denied might file a complaint with the Department of Civil Rights, leading to an investigation and possible restriction of funds to that hospital. Should a patient suffer aggravations due to misinterpretation, the fines reach staggering amounts. There was a USD 71 million settlement in the infamous Willy Ramirez “intoxicado” case.
Language access regulations continue to toughen. For example, Washington State Bill 6245 has come into effect in mid-2018, and it compels three new public sector agencies to establish contracts with certified interpreting providers. These measures increase the market size.
Add the massive amount of work sourced by the government and the US Army directly. In 2018, they gave out more than USD 800 million in federal contracts. Only the CIA knows how much more has been funneled into the market under “classified” procurement.
Demand has grown faster than supply, leading to a shortage of interpreters and improved rates for those already in business. According to the 2019 ALC survey, interpreting rates are on the rise: conference interpreting into European languages costs 22 percent more than in 2010, and remote interpreting costs 17 percent more.
It’s a completely different picture from markets elsewhere. In the UK, public sector price pressure resulted in a price drop over the last five years: many LSPs now sell interpreting at under USD 40 per hour, down from 70. In Sweden, the top provider for the public sector interpreting, Semantix, has stepped away from a huge government contract due to price pressure.
There are clouds over this otherwise idyllic landscape.
The reclassification of independent contractors as employees with respective benefits and taxation threatens businesses that rely on freelance interpreters. This regulation is enforced in some states – New York, for example, and is a looming threat in others. Extra costs make it difficult for LSPs that hire interpreters as employees to compete with LSPs that rely on freelancers, and it becomes challenging to field interpreters for a single project in a rare language such as Hungarian.
For now, some of the freelance interpreter LSPs who are at risk adapt to the regulation by making sure their freelancers pass the ABC test of employment. But the test is tricky and no amount of preparation guarantees that the LSP won’t come under fiscal scrutiny and that it won’t face lawsuits. Consulting companies and software solutions spring up to help freelancer-driven businesses deal with the worker classification threat.
Other regulatory threats in the US have arisen from the activity of Donald Trump’s administration. The quota for refugees has been reduced to 30,000 people a year, which slightly curbed the prospects for immigration interpreting businesses, and the government shutdown led to the disruption of E-Verify, an immigration database used by interpreting businesses to find interpreters.
Despite those obstacles, interpreting businesses thrive. And those of them who can navigate the dangerous waters of the US regulatory landscape ahead of the competition stand to win contracts and market niches in the largest national market for language services.
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Pictures from the ALC Annual Conference 2019 in Washington DC