Nearshore Americas

Accelerated English-Training Seen as Gateway to Good Jobs in Barranquilla

Is it possible for a native Spanish-speaker go from speaking very basic English to advanced English skills in just four months?  As evidenced by the accomplishments of the enrollees at the training program of Barranquilla’s Fundacion AliaRSE absolutely is. The foundation was founded in 2011 as a pilot program to train 11th grade high school (16 to 11 years old) students who spoke at least basic English in advanced conversation, listening skills and accent perfection, while simultaneously preparing them to work as contact center agents over a nine month period.

The initiative, created by the Camara de Comerico de Barranquilla and the Caribbean energy utility Transelca SA, is financed by the local government, services students from low-income households who wouldn’t ordinarily have such an opportunity, with the RSE in the name standing for Responsibilidad Social Empresarial (Corporate Social Responsibility).

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“This is a program the local government has developed,” explained Monica Andrea Velasquez Perez, Executive Director of the foundation, “to guarantee that we [meaning Barranquilla] will continue to get the level of English that we need.”

Before being accepted each student’s English level is measured to assure they possess at least the base of what is needed in order to succeed.  Currently enrolled in the program are 180 11th graders, who will enter the workforce at the end of their training and 180 10th graders who will continue for a second year. The program has already yielded success and attracted contact centers looking for new talent. From the initial training group, about 250 out of the 1000 were placed in a contact center and some have moved into supervisory positions. Interestingly, English is taught by Colombian teachers, some of whom have worked in contact centers. “I like it because I can start to work at a good job at a young age,” said one participant. Another added, “English is my favorite idiom and I try to think in English all the time.”

Contact Centers Calling

“We couldn’t hire from the foundation,” said Virna Liz Campanella, General Manager of Sistem Contact Center, “we need a certain level of value added – not just basic skills.” This is understandable given the company’s finance and telecom clients, and health will be added some time in 2014. With this requirement firmly part of operations, Sistem partners with the Universidad Simon Bolivar to recruit new talent that possess the required skills. Another aspect that is unique to Sistem’s operation is the employment of visually impaired team members who operate through an innovative system whereby a computerized voice reports the name of the person the agent is calling, and any relevant data they need during the call.

Although the program’s graduates are not qualified for positions that require highly technical skills or specific knowledge, they are well-suited for a contact center that offers training in the particular campaign or client needs, such as those to assist airline passengers or rental car clients. Instructors at AliaRSE use a combination of role playing and simulated calls that allow students to use present real situations that can arise during a customer service call, an approach that has garnered excellent results. Jean Sanchez, the coordinator of call center operations at the foundation, reported, “We recently had a visit from a manager of a BPO who said, ‘If you have 1000 agents, we’ll take them.’ Clients are asking for more, and we have more than enough positions in Barranquilla.”

Expanding Reach

In addition to English and contact center training for older students, the foundation also provides a program called English 2 Kids (E2K), a platform from which an interest in learning English is instilled in children from seven years old. Over a period of 384 hours, and through engaging activities, students learn social and academic English, and are given the tools needed to reach level A2 as specified by the Common European Framework of References for Languages (CEFR).

Students who possess levels B1 – B2 English proficiency can enroll in specialized courses wherein they will be educated in higher-level English targeted to a specific industry such as marketing, engineering, nursing, tourism and aviation. The intention is that the student will complete the course with solid knowledge of the subject and level C1 English as outlined by CEFR.

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AliaRSE also runs the language center at the Instituto Tecnológico de Soledad Atlántico (ITSA), a school of higher learning providing high-quality accredited academic programs, with a focus on technology and a commitment to contribute to the development of the Caribbean Region.

Anticipating a growing need for multiple language skills, AliaRSE has created a French program to meet the demands of globalization and the general labor market, and to increase the competitive edge of its graduates.

“Barranquilla has grown a lot and we have improved a lot,” reflected Perez. When asked what the secret to their success was, she responded, “The human element. We are all family here.”

Patrick Haller

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