English Skills are a Foundation for Success in Barranquilla

Is it possible for a native Spanish-speaker go from speaking very basic English to advanced English skills in just four months?  As evidenced by the accomplishments of those …

Barranquilla, Colombia.

Is it possible for a native Spanish-speaker go from speaking very basic English to advanced English skills in just four months?  As evidenced by the accomplishments of those enrolled at the training program of Barranquilla’s Fundacion AliaRSE, it absolutely is.

The foundation was founded in 2011 as a pilot program to train 11th grade high school (16-year-old) students who spoke at least basic English in advanced conversation, listening skills and accent perfection, while simultaneously preparing them to work as contact center agents over a nine-month period. The initiative, which is financed by the local government and minimally supported by private companies and the Camara de Comerico de Barranquilla, services students from low-income households who would not ordinarily have such an opportunity, with the RSE in the name standing for Responsibilidad Social Empresarial (Corporate Social Responsibility).

Local Development

“This is a program the local government has developed,” explained Monica Andrea Velasquez Perez, Executive Director of the foundation, “to guarantee that we [meaning Barranquilla] will continue to get the level of English that we need.”

Before being accepted, each student’s English level is measured to assure they possess at least the base of what is needed in order to succeed.  Currently enrolled in the program are 180 11th graders, who will enter the workforce at the end of their training, and 180 10th graders who will continue for a second year.

The program has already yielded success and attracted contact centers looking for new talent. From the initial training group, about 250 out of the 1,000 were placed in a contact center and some have moved into supervisory positions. Interestingly, English is taught by Colombian teachers, some of whom have worked in contact centers. “I like it because I can start to work at a good job at a young age,” said one participant. Another added, “English is my favorite idiom and I try to think in English all the time.”

Contact Centers Calling

“We couldn’t hire from the foundation,” said Virna Liz Campanella, General Manager of Sistem Contact Center, “we need a certain level of value added – not just basic skills.” This is understandable given the company’s finance and telecom clients, and health will be added some time in 2014.

With this requirement firmly established, Sistem partners with the Universidad Simon Bolivar to recruit new talent that possess the required skills. Another aspect that is unique to Sistem’s operation is the employment of visually impaired team members who operate through an innovative system whereby a computerized voice reports the name of the person the agent is calling, and any relevant data they need during the call.

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Although the program’s graduates are not qualified for positions that require highly technical skills or specific knowledge, they are well-suited for a contact center that offers training in the particular campaign or client needs, such as those to assist airline passengers or rental car clients. Instructors at AliaRSE use a combination of role playing and simulated calls that allow students to use present real situations that can arise during a customer service call, an approach that has garnered excellent results.

Jean Sanchez, the coordinator of call center operations at the foundation, reported, “We recently had a visit from a manager of a BPO firm who said, ‘If you have 1,000 agents, we’ll take them.’ Clients are asking for more, and we have more than enough positions in Barranquilla.”

“Barranquilla has grown a lot and we have improved a lot,” reflected Perez. When asked what the secret to their success was, she responded, “The human element. We are all family here.”

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