By Tim Wilson
Effective nearshoring of business processes in Latin America requires a trained workforce, with English-language skills often a core requirement. Getting a non-native speaker comfortable with customer engagement is no easy task, and some jurisdictions and organizations are at a distinct advantage over others. “As many of Latin America’s trading partners conduct business internationally in English, the expansion of regional economies will inevitably require multilingual employees,” says Wes Schwalje, Chief Operating Officer, Tahseen Consulting. “Existing skills surveys on the region show that business owners expect a dramatic increase in the need for multilingual employees in the next five years.”
Schwalje is the author of The Prevalence and Impact of Skills Gaps on Latin America and the Caribbean. The paper, which was published in Georgetown University’s Revista Journal when Schwalje was at the London School of Economics, outlines how firms in Latin America are concerned about skills deficiencies, with English language abilities being near the top of the list. Fortunately, English is easier to learn than other global languages.
“The Foreign Service Institute estimates that it takes 2,200 hours to speak and write Arabic and Mandarin at a minimally professional level while English takes only 600 hours,” says Schwalje. “In calibrating their investment in skills, this extra time represents an opportunity cost that workers could potentially spend learning other skills.”
In Latin America, Mexico has a definite advantage due to its proximity to the United States. Many of its citizens have lived and worked north of the border, and have also developed language skills in regions frequented by tourists. This is also true in other popular destination countries such as the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica.
“There is no doubt that close proximity to other countries is advantageous for language skill development,” says Schwalje. “In the last decade, US society has also changed dramatically whereby Latinos make up 17% of the population. Many of them are multilingual.”
The understanding of the importance of English has gone global. For example, a report published by Cambridge University Press estimated that China has 250 to 350 million English learners. “If English requires a fraction of the time, but ultimately winds up generating the same result, individuals might view studying English as a more economically rational decision than spending the extra time to learn more difficult languages,” says Schwalje. “The old adage goes ‘You can buy in any language, but you can only sell in the customer’s.’”
From a product perspective, Schwalje thinks that that saying might be out-dated – you can make a shirt or a computer without being bilingual. But if the product itself is customer service, and the customer is an English-language speaker in the United States, then there is no choice – a business will succeed or fail based on the language competency of its workforce.
The Training Game
Even the most casual traveler in Latin America will notice that private English language training schools are big business. Often, public schools have limited or poor curricula, but that isn’t always the case.
“Anytime the local government invests, promotes and supports English in the public school system, there is a distinct advantage,” says Heather Littlejohns, a consultant to BPO providers in Latin America. “The programming in Barranquilla, Colombia, is an example of this.”
Where public school English language instruction is not strong – and that is in most of Latin America – students are faced with an unregulated private industry that presents mixed results. As a result, some BPO providers have developed their own programs, at times in concert with proven external schools. Usually, however, providers want their hires already to be up to speed.
“Typically the agent is hired with the language skill required to support the business,” says Littlejohns. “After that, development and training is provided internally to support the client’s needs. Examples include accent neutralization, acculturation training, and access to external support activities and educational programs which allow people to improve their skills.”
Some language schools will offer English courses that are specific to industry sectors – such as business or tourism – but it is often up to a BPO provider to put together a program that suits its specific needs.
“A tiered approach for skills can be facilitated,” says Littlejohns. “A care agent can move to tech support with experience, training and practice, and an agent with dual language skills can be leveraged for lower requirements, such as Spanish voice, but with the system in English. With time and practice this type of person can become bilingual.”
Littlejohns says this is evident when an agent is hired who has graduated from a language school but does not practice or use English socially.
“Over time, and with use of the language, a person can become fully functional conversationally, and truly bilingual given that the educational foundation is there for grammar, writing, etc.,” she says.
When Regions are Bilingual
One approach that forces public commitment to English-language skills is to aim for completely bilingual regions. Puerto Rico has this as a goal for 2022, and Colombia is even more ambitious, with its Colombia Bilingüe plan aiming to make the entire country bilingual by 2019.
“Government support in Latin America is critical,” says Littlejohns. “The situation is 100% better than it was ten years ago, but an increased investment continues to be desired in the public school system. This is where the largest employment pool will come from in the future.”
And there is still plenty of work to do. A study conducted two years ago by the private language school English First found that Latin America fared poorly when it came to English language skills, but so did their competitors: China and India ranked 29 and 30 respectively out of 44 countries. Income levels correlated to English proficiency, and Latin America was seen to be at a disadvantage given the prevalence of one language – Spanish – throughout the region. But English is a must.
“English is not only a competitive advantage but a key component of a low cost, knowledge-based services export strategy,” says Schwalje. “English has been critical to India’s success in this regard, and we see other countries in the North Africa, Sub Sahara Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia following in the footsteps of India.”
Regions do well where incomes are high and a diversity of languages forces English to function as the lingua franca. This then furthers economic growth: a study from the European Commission found a direct link between language skills and business profitability. In Latin America, rising incomes will inevitably result in improved language skills, but the race is on: by some estimates, China already has more English speakers than the United States.