Admittedly late to the Nearshore outsourcing boom, Trinidad and Tobago is striving to gain a solid foothold among a competitive field of regional rivals through fairly aggressive incentives and a bid to specialize in finance-related sourcing. A little over a year ago, Florida-based iQor, made headlines when it became the first BPO entrant to make a significant commitment to Trinidad and – according to company officials – the experience has been reasonably positive.
IQor Capitalizes on Lack of Saturation
IQor already had an existing nearshore presence in Panama, but branched out into Trinidad to first serve a telecoms client. “After researching Central and South America, Trinidad stood out for its native English-language skills and a government that tries to incentivize businesses to invest,” said Brent Pattison, SVP Operations at iQor. “BPO in the country is not yet a saturated market, so, from a labor cost standpoint, we are able to reduce the cost to our customers, which allowed us to be one of the first global BPO call center organizations in Trinidad.”
The company set up its operation in the middle of 2015, and now supports three clients from Trinidad: two in telecom and one from a private consumer support industry. Since then, iQor has been able to create a little over 300 full-time jobs in the market and is continuing to grow. Wages in Trinidad are relatively similar to iQor’s other site in Panama, but the company didn’t specify any average operator salaries when questioned.
Trinidad has been known as somewhat of a virgin market for BPO, with one of the issues being a lack of call center-ready space. To address this, the Tamana Intech Park was built, housing facilities for contact centers, such as telecommunications connectivity and supporting infrastructure. This tech park was a major motivation for iQor to move into the country, but Pattison stressed that it needs additional tenants before more food vendors and other staff services providers will be attracted to the site.
According to Anupam Govil, President/Partner at Avasense/Avasant, the country’s new government is serious about attracting investment, but also more diligent about the incentives and benefits they offer new companies, leading to a more laborious visa application process. Pattison mentioned that the process was not particularly efficient and required a lot of background information from applicants; however, iQor has since secured them for its employees.
Another hurdle the country still needs to overcome is the lack of a mass transportation network, stemming primarily from its low population of less than 1.4 million. This is something that iQor, InvesTT and other local vendors have been collaborating on to develop alternatives. In the U.S. and Canada, Trinidad is still not associated with outsourcing and BPO. This market awareness is essential to build if the country aspires to develop its reputation. Secondly, the internal awareness of its citizens must continue to be a priority to ensure that people desire to work in the sector.
In 2013, Global KPO firm Quatrro Global Services and the Caribbean Electronic Payments Systems were gearing up to launch F&A BPO operations in Trinidad & Tobago, but, we couldn’t find any evidence that the plan came to fruition. We also reached out to Quatrro for comments, but were not able to get a response.
Much of iQor’s initial entry effort was supported by InvesTT, the country’s government-funded investment promotion agency. The agency targets BPO providers that are looking to set up in the nearshore then partners with them from beginning to end to help them in the process. This includes providing information on local markets to setting up meetings, site visit facilitation, real estate advisory, and access to incentives. Furthermore, the agency doesn’t change anything for these services.
From a training perspective, Trinidad has an On-The-Job Training (OJT) program, which provides a 60% reimbursement of wages over a two-year period for new employees, providing they are registered in the program and between the ages of 18 and 35. This rebate is not contingent on a minimum amount of new hires, but is dependent on which skill sets a company hires, according to Govil. Call center agents, customer support operators, finance, accounting, and IT-centric workers qualify for this program, but certain categories are excluded from it, such as oil and gas workers.
Besides being a native English-speaking nation, everyone agrees that Trinidadians have the right aptitude of skills to support the BPO sector. Education in Trinidad is free to all citizens, resulting in one of the best-educated workforces in the Caribbean. This advantage lends itself well to the technical support services that iQor focuses on. The country is developing skills for industry-focused BPO, such as financial services, insurance, healthcare, and finance and accounting, which require this higher level of education. Even so, the country still needs to build awareness of BPO within its universities and its population, as more citizens need to aspire to work within the industry.
When it first arrived, iQor invested heavily in blast marketing campaigns, but now leverages its critical mass of employees to utilize an employee referral program, as well as using job posting sites and social media to source talent. “We still haven’t run into a roadblock that prevents us from meeting our recruitment needs,” said Pattison. “The staff that we have in Trinidad are Trinidadians; we didn’t have to bring in permanent expats to run the shop. The company has a robust internal development program and I’m still hopeful and positive that we will be able to fill our 700-employee capacity.”
He continued by stating that the customer support channel in which Trinidadians excel is social media. “Conversations in these online interactions are performed extremely effectively due to perfect written English and unscripted conversation skills, and that has allowed iQor to be successful in this channel.”
Trinidad’s Future BPO Ambitions
According to an InvesTT representative, the country has partnered with the IDB to secure an US$18 million loan to develop its labor pool in high-end BPO skills, particularly in the software development space. This will include the introduction of a global services hub to position Trinidad as a known services hub for higher-end ITO services. The hub will be a physical space with an IT finishing school for graduates with IT backgrounds, enabling them to move directly into software development firms or IT services firms. The administrative plans and location scouting for the hub have been completed in time for a 1Q17 launch timeframe.
Trinidad allows 100% foreign ownership of locally registered businesses, so no joint venture partnership is required. Free repatriation of profits is also allowed, so money that is spun off into a Trindad-based business can be sent back to the head company abroad. Companies in the BPO and ITO industry can take advantage of a free zone incentive, which allows for tax-free treatment wherever the company sets up in the country, and also includes a corporate tax incentive and no import duties for necessary equipment, providing the company exports 50% of production.
Trinidad’s reputation as a virgin BPO market is likely to shift in the coming years, as the country becomes more visible on the BPO radar as a suitable location for higher-value services. The country’s strong incentive structure, high-quality workforce and strong free-zone policies will continue to be advantages for investors, but only if the government is truly committed to building awareness of its country’s BPO ambitions.