By Luke Bujarski
High employee turnover is something that sourcing managers have learned to put up with when offshoring IT and BPO tasks to India. But now the Philippines has also begun showing signs of overheating. Given Latin America’s relatively small labor pools, we worry that the region might follow suit and succumb to the same pressures that have pushed the Philippines to its limits. So far, rampant turnover has not been a major problem with LatAm markets. But just in case, we decided to take another look at some of the details around attrition and other symptoms of hot labor market conditions.
What we found is that while Latin American labor pools are fewer and often smaller, sound management practices at the company level, greater company loyalty, and slower, more organic industry growth have kept attrition rates lower than what has been seen in both India and the Philippines.
What’s Up with the Philippines?
“BPO firms [in the Philippines] are experiencing difficulty in hiring and retaining “capable employees,” thus, resulting in higher attrition rates and an increase in hiring and retention costs,” noted global consulting firm Tholons in a recent report. Other sources suggest that up to 75 percent of the Philippine people speak good English, so it’s no surprise that the BPO industry (in revenues) has been growing at 20 percent annually. Market research firm XMG Global also expressed concern over the growing “talent problem” in the Philippines – not only with today’s labor force, but also with high dropout rates in the labor pipeline in primary and secondary school. As a result of this and other factors, labor costs are expected to go up by 25-60 percent over the next five years.
Despite these warning signs, the Business Process Outsourcing Association of the Philippines, in a joint report with Everest Research, anticipates the industry to almost double by 2016 to 900,000 employees. For those service providers already battling it out with runaway training and recruitment costs, wage inflation, disrupted project workflows, and inconsistency in service level quality, those projections may be a hard pill to swallow.
LatAm Sensitivity to Demand Pressures
When it comes to contact centers and BPO, English-speaking labor pools in Latin America are relatively small and hence tend to be more susceptible to demand and supply misalignment. Central American countries are a case in point as is currently being witnessed in Guatemala, where a growing price war for bilingual agents is forcing companies like 24/7 Customer to diversify their coverage base into Nicaragua. Going forward, as even smaller markets like Belize and Honduras grow into the BPO industry, service providers should take care not to over promise and under deliver on total cost and service level agreements. Likewise, government officials should be careful not to ‘over promote’ their regions’ capabilities, without backing up their initiatives with matching training and education dollars.
Concern over employee churn also has a lot to do with the type of business that you’re in. According to Tony Mataya from Think Solutions, on the whole, Mexico’s IT services industry has not seen the type of attrition rates experienced in India. Chris Snyder CIO of Hulcher also said that it has a lot to do with the fact that just like Americans, “Indians don’t want to work the third shift if they don’t have to” – referring to the 12-hour time zone gab between the US and India. This is particularly true when dealing with agile, scrum and other live-time software development methodologies. “We tried agile with India, but turnover got to the point of ridiculousness.” Snyder also noted that they’ve had much better luck in Brazil, although they’ve found it increasingly difficult to retain and recruit talent since signing on with Stefanini Solutions three years ago.
Market Fundamentals: Mexico vs. India vs. the Philippines
When looking at macro-level data there are a couple of things to be mindful of when analyzing labor markets. Consumer price inflation is perhaps the most indicative of rising wages, since employers typically need to adjust salaries annually in line with overall inflation. Below we see that the cost of living has more than doubled in India over the last five years, while Mexico and the Philippines have seen lower inflation year on year. GDP per capita is clearly much higher in Mexico, which puts a premium on wages. Likewise sheer market size in terms of population emphasizes India’s dominance as an offshore hub to both Mexico and the Philippines.
Attrition Boils Down to Economics, Management, Culture
Personal expectations and the promise of higher wages is what ultimately cause BPO employees to jump ship. However, work culture and company management style also has a lot to do with it. Eric Simonson Director of research at Everest pointed out that “the Indian work mentality is focused more heavily on ‘getting ahead’, rather than subject matter expertise. We’ve seen good things coming out of Poland lately partly because the work culture follows a more artisanal approach focused on mastery and domain expertise.” Mataya from Think Solutions also backed up this claim and mentioned that it is “not uncommon to see BPO workers in India move companies for ten cent raises”.