Barranquilla is ramping up its ‘English for Work’ program, as the Colombian city presses ahead with a dual goal of slashing its high unemployment rate and satiating the hunger for bilingual talent in its burgeoning business process outsourcing (BPO) industry.
Launched in October 2021, the program has already taught English to over 3,300 young citizens, with plans to increase the number of apprentices to over 8,000 by the end of 2023.
“More than 70% of the young people who have graduated are already working in the bilingual services industry. These are multinational companies that offer growth,” stated Jaime Pumarejo, Mayor of Barranquilla, according to a report by local news outlet El Heraldo.
If the training program continues at this pace, as many as 4,000 Barranquilla residents will have learned English by the end of 2022, the mayor said.
In Barranquilla alone, there are around 34 BPO firms, of which 23 are bilingual services providers
Finding agents with English skills has long been a struggle for BPO firms in Colombia, a country that in recent months has seen tremendous growth in firms providing global services.
It is not clear how many English-speaking Colombians are currently working in the country’s contact center industry. In his 2017 interview with Nearshore Americas, Ricardo Duran, general manager at Outsourcing SA, said that only 4% of Colombia’s contact center labor pool is bilingual.
That’s a small number compared to the size of the country’s bilingual BPO industry. In Barranquilla alone, there are around 34 BPO firms, of which 23 are bilingual services providers, according to ProColombia, the country’s investment promotion agency.
English and Colombia
Among Latin American and Caribbean countries, Colombia was ranked 15th in the latest edition of EF English Proficiency Index. Globally, it ranked 81st, sitting in the lower rung of the ladder of 112 countries.
English is not taught in elementary schools in Colombia. Besides, teachers are few, and although many can write in English, they lack the skill to speak it fluently.
There are several private institutions that teach English in the country, but they are very expensive. As a result, bilingual talent is costly to hire, and and potential employees prefer to try luck in better-paying industries, such as hotels, high-end restaurants and IT services.
Why English for Work?
The English for Work program is promoted and managed by Colombia’s National Learning Service -known in Spanish as Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje (SENA)-, a public educational institute that offers a wide range of vocational training programs, most of them designed for job seekers.
“We found the opportunity to contribute to closing the employability gap through the ‘English for Work’ program”–Jacqueline Rojas Solano
The program has become a “a national model”, according to Jacqueline Rojas Solano, SENA’s director for Colombia’s Atlántico Region. The success has been such that other regions in the country have begun replicating English for Work to generate talent in various other industries, she has said.
“This is why, as an entity, we found the opportunity to contribute to closing the employability gap through the ‘English for Work’ program,” stated Rojas in a conversation with Nearshore Americas last week.
Candidates pay no fee for enrolling in the progam, but basic knowledge of the English language is needed. They undergo 1,000 hours of learning to reach the B2 level, something required by global services providers, such as BPOs.
“Our training process is carried out in a SENA Node specialized in the teaching of English, which has 12 classrooms and 4 laboratories,” Rojas said.
Besides BPOs, SENA has recently launched an academy in alliance with GBM, a local IT services provider, to equip software professionals with English skills.
Already, 19 trainees have landed a full-time job with GBM, according to Rojas.