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When it Comes to English, Chile Doesn’t Make the Grade

Chile has the IT skills to be a global player, but does it have enough professionals proficient in English

By Dennis Barker

Chile plans to expand its IT outsourcing services sector by bringing in a lot more global customers and by setting up outposts in the United States. But the country is going to need something to fuel that growth: more English speakers.

The figure varies, but current assessments put the number of proficient English speakers in Chile at 3 to 5 percent of the population. With 16 million people, that’s approximately 700,000 who have a working knowledge of the language. When you’re a popular destination, that’s not enough.

Battle for Bilingual

“Economically speaking, Chile is a place businesses want to be,” says Peter Ryan, lead analyst with Ovum, “but competing for English-speaking labor is a real challenge in Chile because the cost is high. You can find people who can speak very good English, but you have to factor in that in Chile, the IT sector and the BPO sector are fighting with each other for English speakers, and they’re also fighting other sectors, like healthcare and manufacturing and transportation. That pushes the prices up.”

“If you compare the situation with other countries like Colombia and El Salvador, you can find English speakers there at a much lower rate,” Ryan says. “That puts a lot of pressure on Chile.”

“English is probably our big challenge as a country,” Carlos Fernandez, the new CEO of Chile-IT, told Nearshore Americas during a recent interview. “That’s a weakness that we need to strengthen. This will require effort from the public sector and the private sector.”

Fernandez said this is something that Chilean business leaders realized five or ten years ago and that government and commerce are “pursuing various initiatives” to boost professional English-language skills. For example, CORFO, the Chilean investment promotion agency, is setting up internships to help Chilean students interact with Americans and other native English speakers.

(Fernandez said he could read some English before entering the work world but really learned the language full-immersion-style with an internship in the 1980s in Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S.A. “No one spoke any Spanish,” he recalls.)

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Making English Work

One of the best-known initiatives is English Opens Doors. The Ministry of Education’s 10-year plan is designed to make sure every student in the country gets 1,000 hours of English-language learning during the grammar and high-school years. The goal is a “working knowledge” of spoken and written English. The Ministry also says it aims to sharpen the skills of the country’s approximately 8,000 English teachers and to import English speakers from the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the U.K. This year, as the Guardian reported, the government is instituting standardized assessment of teachers’ English skills with a goal of bringing them up to “international standards.”

Jon Felperin, an El Salvador-based educator and consultant with a business focus on the BPO/contact center sector, says the demand for English “is strong,” and that “Chile is pushing its IT section.”

But, Felperin adds, “the real need is in the public schools to improve things, and that will take a generation.”

“Our expectation is the trend will be reversed in the next five years,” Chile-IT’s Fernandez says.

Ovum’s Ryan says: “When you have so much demand from American and European and Indian firms, and English is acknowledged as the language of business, it’s up to the government and investment wings to increase the numbers of English speakers. If people come to Chile and invest, it’s crucial that the English speakers are there for them.”

About Kirk Laughlin

Kirk Laughlin is an award-winning editor and subject expert in information technology and offshore BPO/ contact center strategies.
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