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Jamaica Races to Close IT Gender Gap Before Automation Takes Hold

Automation is inching its way into Jamaica. With it come hopes for the economic future of the island, but also the urgency to upskill its workforce, particularly the women, before the impact of technology is felt too severely in the local labor ecosystem.

Jamaica’s economy is going through a process of transformation. The Caribbean island, known popularly as a paradise for tourists, retirees and –recently– digital nomads, has been able to build a burgeoning BPO ecosystem, leveraging low costs of labor and a workforce of native English speakers to export business process services into the US, Canada and other lucrative markets.

Nevertheless, there’s potential for more. In a paper published in May 2022, the World Bank pointed out that Jamaica “can leverage its success with call centers to move toward higher-value services including knowledge process outsourcing (KPO), information technology outsourcing, and eventually digital services for creative industries.”

Local authorities are aware of this potential. With that in mind, they launched a US$15 million program, in tandem with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), which aims precisely at developing more sophisticated skills among the Jamaican workforce, particularly those already working within the BPO sector. 

“As Jamaica pivots towards higher-value segments (such as KPO, ITO), it needs to deploy assertive strategies to carry over current BPO workers with upskilling and reskilling strategies that respond to these subsegment demands,” explained Fernando Pavon, Senior Specialist, Skills Development at the IDB’s Labor Markets Division, in a statement to NSAM.

The program has been able to increase the number of jobs in the global services sector (GSS) in Jamaica to over 50,000, according to Pavon, way above the original goal of 44,000. With the program ending officially in mid-2024, local entrepreneurs feel optimistic about the prospects for the industry. 

And yet, the sense of urgency remains. 

Minding the Gap

There’s a wide gender gap in Jamaica’s global services sector, but its numbers show a picture that’s unlike any other seen when observing gender imbalances in most countries and industries.

The Global Services Association of Jamaica (GSAJ) estimates that the number of people employed within GSS in the island stands, as of February of 2023, at 59,000. This includes business process outsourcing (BPO), as well as the outsourcing of tech services (ITO) and knowledge processes (KPO). Of that workforce of almost 60,000, around 71% are women; the rest (29%) are men. 

Although those numbers could be construed as a positive development for the female workforce for most industries, the Jamaican authorities and the IDB find them concerning. 

In Jamaican GSS, the vast majority (96.7%) of workers are employed in BPO. Employment in KPO and ITO –which require more sophisticated processes and knowledge– represent 1.52% and 0.82%, respectively. 

“While women dominate employment in the sector, they are mostly in positions that could be replaced by Artificial Intelligence”—Fernando Pavon, Senior Specialist, Skills Development at the IDB’s Labor Markets Division

Women dominate Jamaican GSS if one accounts only for sheer employment numbers. Yet, the female workforce remains mostly relegated to jobs that are less valued by the market. When taking a look at the  KPO and ITO industries, which are more STEM-oriented and better paid, the workforce is mostly male.

“While women dominate employment in the sector, they are mostly in positions that could be replaced by Artificial Intelligence and therefore more likely to lose their jobs in the short-term as the industry evolves to more value-added technology-based services,” Pavon wrote in an article published on IDB’s site.

Jamaica knows that tech innovation represents a golden opportunity for its economy. Nevertheless, government officials and representatives of NGOs such as the IDB are aware that the transformation has to be implemented with attention to its repercussions, particularly for vulnerable groups. 

“The underrepresentation of women in STEM is concerning […] STEM is far too important to our society and future for women to be so underrepresented,” Pavon added in his article.

What’s To Be Done?

With the hope (and threat) of automation looming ever closer, government officials and BID representatives know they have to move fast and elevate the female portion of Jamaican GSS. 

In response, both parties launched a five-year program which, among other things, opens access to training and, consequently, better job opportunities within the island’s GSS. The program is funded by an IDB loan, with funds being managed by Jamaica’s investment promotion agency (JAMPRO).

“Understanding current worker structures, as KPO and ITO segments demand more sophisticated skills, enables current women workers to embark in these upskilling/reskilling modules that empower workers to be a pillar in the industry transformation process,” Pavon explained. 

The program includes apprenticeships, internship programs and high school immersion bootcamps, allowing for a more direct pipeline between businesses and educational institutions. 

The program also provides a tool which maps the possible professional trajectories –known as the Career Pathway Framework–for those who venture into GSS, detailing salaries, benefits and even the skills required to traverse the industry, 

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AI is growing increasingly attractive for companies who provide BPO services. Firms with a presence in the Caribbean, such as itel, Ibex and iQor, have been trumpeting the AI-driven future of the industry for a while. As automation gains traction in other strong BPO strongholds, they have ample reason to push for rapid adoption.

It remains to be seen whether Jamaica will be able to catch-up to the automation trend while managing the disruption that will inevitably come with it.

Cesar Cantu

Cesar is the Managing Editor of Nearshore Americas. He's a journalist based in Mexico City, with experience covering foreign trade policy, agribusiness and the food industry in Mexico and Latin America.

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