Not so many years ago, Colombia’s status as a Nearshore destination was on rocky ground. Despite its population – now around 50 million – the country’s bilingual talent was sorely lacking, Nearshore Americas found.
Since then, the Nearshore world has changed. Colombia, which enjoys a strategic location at the northerly-most point of South America, and so connecting to Central and North America, stands as a poster boy for the Nearshore industry.
Barranquilla, the country’s fourth major city and positioned on the Caribbean coast and flanked by the Magdalena River which provided the basis for the city’s industrial heritage, is at the heart of Colombia’s BPO-specific efforts, and is representative of Colombia’s recent growth. Starting with the launch of the Sykes operation (almost exactly ten years ago), Barranquilla has grown at a torrid pace — racing to becoming one of the most prominent ‘disruptor’ locations in the entire Nearshore region.
The economy of Atlantico department, in which the city is located, grew faster than the national average in 2019 and Barranquilla has the lowest unemployment rate of any Colombian city: 11.5% compared to the 15% national average. Atlantico’s forward progress is still relatively young, by between 2003 and 2018, monetary poverty among its population decreased from 49.5% in 2003 to 21.3%.
Atlantico has claimed many economic prizes recently. The largest renewable energy site in Colombia will be built in the Atlantico department while the Arena Del Rio, a multi-use stadium and entertainment hub, is among the largest urban development projects in Latin America and will be located adjacent to the Magdalena River. The arena, to be built by Two Way Stadiums in conjunction with Universal Music Group which will bring its artists to perform at the site, is expected to generate over 260,000 jobs, directly and indirectly, during build and operation.
Business Friendliness and Connectivity
Atlantico and Barranquilla have done a lot to ensure a friendly entrance into the local market for international business. The four permanent free trade zones located in or near to the city offer tax incentives while real estate prices remain significantly lower than competitor cities. Barranquilla has over 20 business centers with A+ category offices that cost an average of US$11.6 per m2 to rent, compared against US$12.9 per m2 in Medellin or US$16.8 per m2 in Bogotá.
Internet services are a real strength of the region due to four of the 13 internet submarine cables that connect Colombia to the rest of the world arriving to Atlantico. There is also a direct connection with the Network Access Point of Miami, giving companies the opportunity to connect more closely with the Floridian city.
Four of the 13 internet submarine cables that connect Colombia to the rest of the world arrive to Atlantico
Colombia’s Departmental Competitiveness Report, which ranks departments by indicators including internet bandwidth, the number of residential homes with computer access, homes with cell phone access and fixed broadband penetration, placed Atlantico in third nationally behind the Bogota and Bolívar departments.
Barranquilla: Educational PowerHouse
A major part of Barranquilla’s efforts to draw in more BPO companies and generate opportunities for the local economy has been driven by education efforts. In 2019, Atlantico was rated as the top department in Colombia and Barranquilla the top city in Education First’s English Proficiency Index.
“By partnering with major BPOs and adapting new education strategies, we’re making a real drive to improve English abilities here,” Miguel Vergara, the Minister of Economic Development for the Atlantico government, told Nearshore Americas.
Atlantico produced over 240,000 graduates between 2001 and 2019 through its 17 certified higher learning institutes. According to ProBarranquilla stats, 84% of university graduates in the department leave university with B2 level of English. Yet not all graduates want to go into call center operations, and for the approximately 18,000 BPO job opportunities available in the city, more new English speaking talent is needed.
“There’s a great affinity between local people and the US, so English is learned quickly. Companies may not always be able to find large numbers of bilingual when they initially arrive but within six months there are the people they need, qualified,” said Vergara.
A large part of that effort is the National Training Service (SENA), a nationally funded public institution that provides vocational training. In Atlantico, SENA has 19 institutions to help develop English-speaking abilities for local people who want to go on to work in the BPO sector.
SENA Atlantico Director Jacqueline Rojas and her team are pushing ahead with a new English-language learning strategy, English for Work, that they hope to improve on SENA’s meagre recent output.
“We saw there was a huge opportunity to do better with English training and meet the needs that companies were telling us they had,” said Rojas.
In 2019, just 0.003% of students that enrolled in SENA’s bilingual programs went on to train with BPO companies. After forging stronger strategic alliances with companies including Teleperformance and Sitel, SENA has increased its retention rates to 79% in Atlantico. This strong educational performance is expanding Barranquilla’s talent pool.
“Relations between the public and private sectors are close,” said Vergara. “This and the universities provide a strong ecosystem to draw companies here.”
Continued Cultural Fit
Despite the strong Spanish accent of local people, Barranquilla is well known for its flat English accent, meaning few companies have the need to train for accent neutralization training.
This could be attributed to the city’s proximity to US hubs like Miami, which is reached from Barranquilla on a flight lasting less than 3 hours. Locals claim a strong cultural affinity with the United States. Though this is certainly not a unique feature in the Nearshore market, US culture feels close in Barranquilla. That a major US tourist destination – Cartagena – is just up the road, means the tourism industry provides many jobs for locals and people can lay claim to having a stronger sense of US subtleties than in other cities like Bogotá or Cali.
“Barranquilla is very Americanized. CEOs and VPs feel very comfortable here,” Sebastian Calvo, Site Director at Nearshore Call Center (NCC), a Colombian subsidiary of US BPO, AGR Group.
“Barranquilla is very Americanized. CEOs and VPs feel very comfortable here.” — Sebastian Calvo
NCC provides inbound and outbound services to clients from a number of sectors including energy and utilities, home insurance and major American telecommunications companies. Four years in business, NCC considers itself a boutique call center that scales with its clients’ demands. According to Calvo, interest in Barranquilla is growing by the day and NCC is forecast to duplicate its workforce by the end of 2022. The company averages around 400 hotel nights a year for interested parties.
“Our beginnings in Colombia were humble. We had a 10 seater space. But now, we’ve got over 300 employees, are moving into our second facility in December and aim to double our headcount by next year. With what is happening in Mexico, we’re getting a lot of business,” said Calvo.
Sitel will become the area’s largest BPO employer, overtaking HGS which employs 2,000 people across its three CX centers in the city, once its workforce is combined with that of Sykes following the recent US$2.2 billion acquisition. Sitel’s MAXHub model, which places a focus on flexibility of workspaces and a more holistic approach to work and life (the inclusion of a free gym with on-premise trainers and psychical therapists is one such example) is intended to rid the company of the traditional brick-and-mortar contact center ideology.
“Barranquilla has a great young talent pool and we want to offer opportunities that improve lives,” said Javier Chia, Business Unit Director at Sitel in Barranquilla.
- Population: 1.2 million (2.6 million in Atlantico Department)
- Mayor’s Office: Goal to train 1,500 bilingual professionals per month
- Bilingualism: 84% of graduates in Atlantico leave university with B2 English
- Universities: 17 certified higher learning institutes
- Connectivity: Four submarine cables connect Atlantico to the outside world
- Real Estate: US$11.6 per m2 for commercial office space
Photo credit: Dawin Rizzo