Traditionally a region reputed for call center and voice support work, the governments and promotion agencies of the Caribbean have been pushing to move up the value chain into higher level services. The arguments for time zone, proximity and cultural affinity are quite valid for the Caribbean, perhaps more so than for Latin America.
The question is how serious is the demand for Caribbean IT services from a nearshore services perspective? And are there enough technically skilled workers to satisfy that demand? We spoke with top contacts in three Caribbean countries – the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Barbados – to get the answers.
What we heard from almost everyone we spoke to is this: Caribbean domestic markets are too small for local companies there to really grow. The demand for IT is just not there at home, which means those companies know that they have to focus on the US market for growth. The contracts are higher value and there’s much more potential services volume. This is in stark contrast with vendors in many Latin American countries, whose strong domestic markets mean that they have to go international only after amassing a sizeable presence at home. A Caribbean provider on the other hand is US-facing from day one.
Here’s a breakdown of IT demand and workforce supply in our three Caribbean countries:
In Dominican Republic outsourced services, the call center industry is king. With one of the lowest labor costs in the region ($7000 a year) and large players like Stream Global Services operating in the country, the call center industry generates 40% of national GDP. When talking about IT services however, the DR market is very small, even compared to neighboring countries. “The market is really driven by the telecom companies and the banks,” says Jose Luis del Rio, CEO of Newtech, the country’s main IT provider. “But in terms of IT service volumes, the demand is not there locally, which is why we try to export to the US market.”
But when that demand from the US comes, will there be enough IT worker supply to satisfy it? At the moment there is not a shortage of technical skill in the country, but we got the sense that as soon as one large IT player sets up in the DR, that talent pool will be exhausted. Anticipating this, a notable initiative promises to radically increase the IT workforce base. Called ClusterSoft, it’s an organization of about 40 tech companies in the Dominican Republic including all the major software makers, as well as the technical universities and government institutions responsible for IT exports.
University programs for technical training in the DR are usually robust and focused on the skills companies would be looking for.
Last year ClusterSoft came up with a plan to intensively train 10,000 bilingual software engineers in 24 months – an incredibly ambitious goal, which makes us wonder what the quality of those engineers will be. “We’re going to train them in the basics like Java, .NET, and Scrum methodologies’”, says del Rio, who was elected President of ClusterSoft. “In fact in August we presented the plan to the President who pledged the funding to support the program.” That personal commitment by President Fernandez shows that the DR government is as serious as its vendors about promoting IT exports and making the investment climate right for US companies.
University programs for technical training in the DR are usually robust and focused on the skills companies would be looking for. “The main colleges here all have agreements with ones in the US, and work to integrate the US course of study into the curriculum here,” says del Rio. “These programs are tailored specifically for computer programming and engineering. In about six months we’ll see the first wave of results from the ClusterSoft plan – about a thousand IT graduates.”
We’ve been keeping an eye on Jamaica ever since Sancia Bennett-Templer, President of national promotion group JAMPRO, told us that fueling the ICT sector is the “number one priority” for the country. Just like the DR, Jamaica hosts a very strong call center industry that doesn’t want to give way to IT services. “Of close to 11,000 agents employed in the offshore services sector, there are about 200 or 300 working in pure IT,” says Stacy Adams, Knowledge Services Manager at JAMPRO. “It’s a combination of the lack of IT worker supply, and the lack of IT demand from foreign companies.”
However Jamaica’s education institutions are making an increased effort to train the public. The Caribbean Institute of Technology (CIT), the largest technology trainer in the country, is now expanding its program specifically for IT sector companies. JAMPRO is also working with other major universities and the national training agency, Heart Trust, to develop targeted courses for IT.
The quality of technical education may be strong, but the fact is that there is no real IT demand in Jamaica. “Most of the IT work happening is through ACS, the largest company here. And even they focus mainly on back office support and F&A services,” says Adams. “If there were bigger players in the country, we’d see many more students going into IT education.” Jamaica’s problem is also the lack of ICT-ready space for companies to come in and set up. What limited supply there is, is commercially owned and the Free Trade Zone space is dwindling.
Barbados is a country that is actively trying to move away from the low-end call center industry and into higher level IT work. The government provides cash grants for technical training of new employees for the first 18 months of a company’s operations in the country – any employee hired during that time is entitled to receive it. According to the national promotion agency Invest Barbados, the universities and community colleges offer well reputed computer science programs, and as new high-end education areas are identified, the government is very open to handing out more subsidized training.
The problem however, is that “they’re graduating a lot of workers, but those workers don’t have the requisite experience,” says Maggi Williams, VP of Corporate Development at KM2 Solutions. “In our own business we haven’t been that successful at finding qualified tech workers, and the lack is not in terms of education but in terms of concrete IT work experience.” According to her this is a problem endemic to the whole Caribbean region, and not simply Barbados.
“We have definitely seen a decline in the companies coming to Barbados, mainly because of the anti-offshoring movement in the US,” says Ezra Catwell, Investment Promotion and Facilitation Manager at Invest Barbados. “But we’re confident we can move up into high level services like software and BPO. Right now we actually have more trained people than the demand.”