Whatever caused it, BPO buyers are now paying very close attention to Jamaica, with companies such as Amazon, Lyft, Hilton, and AT&T betting big on the sector. As a result, the country is under close external scrutiny, leading local stakeholders to identify what is holding Jamaica back from the next level.
As the third largest English speaking nation in the Americas, Jamaica and its BPO sector have been capitalizing on the benefits of a desirable workforce, low wages, and cultural alignment with US customers, but greater demand for talent is where the difficulties lie. As client demands also become more technical, Jamaica’s meager IT talent pool has become another top concern.
Speaking at the Outsource2Jamaica (O2J) Symposium and Expo 2018 – the first country-led conference of its kind in the Caribbean – Julian Robinson MP, Opposition Spokesman for the Technology and Knowledge Economy, was among the many attendees who is cognizant of Jamaica’s main challenge: developing enough BPO and IT talent to support the sector’s growth.
“More efforts are required in talent and with people if we are going to move up the value chain, as there are some foundational skills missing from some high school graduates,” he said. “At the customer services end, we have to tweak our education system to ensure the kind of skills and competencies required by the industry are taught from an early age, including empathy, the ability to speak Standard English, to read and write, and to be oriented toward customer service.”
Diane Edwards, President of Jampro, the country’s investment promotions agency, echoed Robinson’s concerns, highlighting the efforts being put forward to deepen Jamaica’s shallow IT talent pool.
“Beyond the beach we are building a world-class industry,” she said. “Partnering with Heart Trust/NTA to upskill people and create training opportunities has been the right move. Moving forward we need to get into the digital age and improve the digital education that we provide to young people. We want to start linking the whole software side of the industry with core BPO and contact centers.”
Barriers in Education and Bureaucracy
With its 72 BPO training sites, Heart enrolled 18,000 people in 2017 and 2018, certifying 11,000 of them as work-ready, as well as establishing a US$60 million BPO incubator during the last financial year. It wasn’t clear how many of these people went on to become BPO agents, but other speakers suggested there was still plenty of work to be done.
“We need to train 5,000 people per year, and our education system is being adjusted to make this happen,” said Senator Aubyn Hill, Executive Director of the Economic Growth Council (EGC). “Our growth rate is of course smaller than India’s, for example, but Jamaica is at the tipping point of real economic growth.”
Hill’s rousing presentation pinpointed one of the main hurdles for talent development, investment, and faster economic growth: bureaucratic blockades.
“People tend to believe you need money and legislation to grow, but a change in the mindset is more important,” he said. “Enablers become blockers of growth when they prevent businesses from implementing. We tell those in the government that “you cannot be blockers; you must become enablers”, so that those in the private sector can become implementers of growth in Jamaica. If we don’t adopt the service mantra that exists so well elsewhere – that we, as government agents, are here to serve you – then we become blockers and the country cannot leapfrog.”
A Need for Nimble, Diverse Training
Edwards also pointed out that Jamaica is not fast enough when it comes to training and graduating the number of people the industry requires, including the software developers and engineers that will help climb the value chain.
“We are not yet graduating enough of that diverse talent pool to take this industry forward,” she said. “We also need to train middle and upper management much more as most companies don’t want to bring them in – they want home grown talent because it’s less costly to hire people here. We have to get middle and senior management into programs, so universities and tertiary colleges also need to kick in and help.”
To attack this issue, Senator Hill suggested that the private sector invests more in the people they already have. “Who knows training and skills better than the BPO vendors?” he said. “They should see it as a business that can really make profits, because the demand is definitely there.”
Jampro is reportedly launching corporate incentives for in-house training with the IDB, because, according to Edwards, vendors are not providing this within the system at large. “We’re looking at a model that was used in Uruguay and will adapt it within the next three months,” she said. “We will start with a pilot project in some companies to see how it works, before rolling it out fully toward the end of 2018.”
Offering another potential solution to the training deficit, Debra Fraser, CEO of Caribbean HR Solutions presented some examples of where technology is successfully being used to create a better fit between agents, employers, and roles.
“We need leaders that will bring the entire labor force up, and there are lots of tests that can help with that by identifying the right people to invest in,” she said. “We don’t just want the masses, we want quality masses, and we can do that with technology and objective standards. Pre-screening tests can weed out non-fit and high performers, along with tools that measure personality fit, basic skills in grammar, logical reasoning, math skills, and whether a person suits sales/outbound or service/inbound. I haven’t yet seen many companies use any of these in Jamaica.”
What is clear from the O2J conference is that Jamaica has a remarkable willingness to adapt, a willingness to find business, the country is open to change, and people are empathetic to the customer. These are all traits that clients want in their providers and agents, so, if the puzzle of healthy talent development is solved, particularly on the IT side, these core values will ensure the country retains its upward trajectory.