El Salvador has long been one of Central America’s crown jewels for attracting BPO investment, but despite a decade of pushing toward the improvement of English, the country is dealing with one of the more worrying cases of talent drought in the region.
“The labor pool is becoming shallower, so we don’t have as much talent as before,” said Beatriz Peralta, Vice-President of Area Operations at Sykes El Salvador. “As a country, we must increase our efforts to grow the talent pool if the BPO industry is to become a more important contributor to the economy.”
Peralta has been a part of the El Salvador BPO industry for decades, starting off with PROESA, where she helped to attract BPOs like Dell, Teleperformance, and Sykes. In those days, she says, there were around 10,000 people who had the right English skills for the industry. Today, the industry has close to 25,000 people in these roles.
“At Sykes, we continue to grow and hire, and we haven’t seen an impact on our KPI performance for our clients,” said Peralta. “People are very committed with an admirable work ethic, and we are privileged to hire such good talent. Our clients are the biggest fans of our agents in El Salvador.”
For reference, 90% of Sykes’ El Salvador operation serves the US, representing around 3,200 agents.
Education Efforts & Hidden Skills
English is not taught as a second language in all public schools in El Salvador, and there are very few bilingual schools in the country producing just a handful of skilled people.
The American and British bilingual schools start teaching from kindergarten level, performing most lessons in English from day one. In the public schools, kids start learning at an elementary level, but the number of hours is not sufficient to develop the necessary level of English for BPO, according to Peralta.
As a countermeasure, due to such high demand from Teleperformance, Sykes, and Convergys, local contact centers each have their own English academies to generate talent.
At Sykes, if applicants cannot achieve an 85% test average across written, listening and comprehension, and verbal expression, then they are offered four weeks of English classes for free. At that point, they will have developed the necessary skills to ace the test and can join the company, according to Peralta.
Due to grammar being a primary focus in those schools that do teach English, El Salvadorians have an incredibly good handle on written English, positioning them well for chat-based support services. “Chat queues in El Salvador are usually more grammatically correct than in the US,” said Peralta. “The issue is vocal fluency and comprehension, especially when dealing with different accents.”
Lack of Government Backing
All BPO companies in the American Chamber of Commerce have lobbied with the government to shift the education system toward a deeper focus on English. Unfortunately, given the many other priorities that the government has, it hasn’t really addressed this.
Some initiatives were introduced a few years ago, such as ITCA/FEPADE’s National English Center, PROESA’s Improve Your English campaign and INSAFORP’s National English Program for Work, but according to Peralta, not much has changed.
“The industry will continue to lobby with the government to invest in English training,” she said. “Look at the Philippines: if they didn’t focus on the English language they wouldn’t have a million BPO agents in such a strong industry. With the incredible work ethic that El Salvadorians have, improving the English skills will only make this industry stronger. We’re committed to El Salvador and are extremely happy with our talented teams.”
Worryingly, a lot of people are also leaving El Salvador, with Sykes reporting that one of the top five reasons for attrition in the country is emigration.
If BPO companies can continue to band together and encourage the government to prioritise English education for economic gains, the industry will flourish more than ever, while providing sustainable employment opportunities for the population.
Check out other countries in this Nearshore English Evolution series by clicking here. Meanwhile, we’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions on this topic, so please join the conversation in the comments below.