Like many residents of their Central American neighbors, the people of Nicaragua understand the growing need for English skills as a means to find well-paying jobs. As a result, the study of the language is growing in popularity, but the government has yet to fully seize the opportunity this presents.
Leveraging a Motivated Population
Ibex Global is one BPO firm finding a wealth of English talent in capital Managua. The company’s operations in Nicaragua are primarily serving US clients with 350 agents, but Ibex plans to double that to 700 by end of the year.
“We’ve been able to staff our programs without much difficulty, and we’ve had around 13 applicants for every available English language position,” said Andres Phippard, Vice President of Operations for Caribbean & Latin America at Ibex Global. “We’ve only recently started hiring for chat services after launching our first chat queue, so the jury is still out there, but for voice we have a lot of experience and I feel comfortable with their capabilities.”
Ibex is not the only company expanding. “At Sitel, we currently have 2,800 bilingual associates, and are bringing on another 450 in the next few months,” said Raul Navarro, COO for Americas at Sitel. “Integrity, work ethic, and capabilities are strong in Nicaragua, but there is a limited amount of highly proficient English speakers, so we generally move people through a structured curriculum to create our own talented folks. This brings comprehension levels up to deal with the complicated nature of the financial and security sectors.”
An Improved Focus on BPO
According to preliminary data from the National Free Zone Commission (CNZF) at the end of 2016, about 8,500 people were employed in the BPO industry, with the number of companies increasing from 12 to 47 between 2007 and 2016, each providing a wide range of services to the United States, Canada, Europe, and Latin America. In the same time period, the data suggests that investment in the sector has been more than US$80 million.
As a large and high-paying employer, Sitel has close ties with the Nicaraguan government, which has been extremely supportive of the company’s ambitions in the country. However, Navarro highlighted that there is still a great opportunity for the government to form structured agencies that can support the industry further, similar to those in Colombia.
Education and Hidden Advantages
“There is a 46% underemployment rate in Nicaragua, so the number of jobs available are relatively limited,” said Phippard. “In this climate, people are self-enrolling into English language schools, so the country will follow a trajectory similar to other nations where supply begins to match closely to demand.”
Due to the high demand, there are a mix of public and private language centers in Nicaragua with around 30,000 people currently enrolled, as well as a few bilingual schools. For example, the National Technological Institute (INATEC) has a language program that reportedly had almost 7,000 students enrolled in April this year.
The World Bank, free zone council, and ProNicaragua, also have an initiative focused on developing talent for call centers. Sitel is involved in this panel, but sees room for improvement. “Quite frankly, they need to do a lot more as they are getting beat out by others countries that have been doing it for some time,” said Navarro.
One other unique advantage of Nicaragua is its use of Creole English, which is spoken on the southern Caribbean coast and in a number of small villages. According to Phippard, there are around 30,000 Creole English speakers in the region, where 42% of Ibex’s employee base comes from. Tourism is also growing rapidly, so many of these people are looking to find work in the tourist industry.
Providing the government can see the opportunity of having a stronger English-speaking population and react accordingly, the already attractive ecosystem for BPO in Nicaragua has the potential to make even bigger waves for Nearshore.
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