By Kirk Laughlin
Spend a few days in Port of Spain, the tidy capital of Trinidad, and you get the sense that this country’s unrealized BPO and tech ‘future’ has been forecasted for so long, and trumpeted so widely that most domestic stakeholders view any effort by the government to execute a global services investment strategy with justifiable skepticism.
Of course, it’s not like the country lacks blue-chip potential. The richest of the major Caribbean islands, Trinidad boast a per capita GDP of $20,300, which ranks 61st in the world and puts the country among the top quarter of richest in all of the Western Hemisphere.
The nation has a solidly performing (and free) secondary education system; competitiveness on the global scale continues to rise and there is a richly interwoven mixture of citizens of Indian, African, Lebanese, Chinese, Spanish and Portuguese descent that pre-qualifies the country to openly engage with people from other cultures.
But the flat out failure to nurture even a minuscule offshore business services sector immediately raises red flags. What’s gone wrong? Is the population even hungry to do professional services/ call center work? Are incentives in place? What’s the BPO master plan?
“We’ve been spoilt by oil and gas, figuring we don’t have to do too much else,” Minister of Trade and Industry Stephen Cadiz said during an interview in late January in the two-year old Hyatt Hotel in the core of Port of Spain, and situated right on the shorefront facing the Caribbean Sea. “We understand that we need this diversification but we’re not going to sell our soul to get it done.”
Oil and gas – mostly natural gas exported to the U.S. – accounts for the vast majority of the country’s GDP. The characteristically frank Kaditz has only been in office for less than a year, but he clearly sees global services as an integral component of a newly recalibrated economic roadmap for the country. Cadiz was appointed by current Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
Many of the world’s biggest energy consumers – including the U.S. – are taking steps to reduce dependence on foreign energy. Couple that with the increasing potential on shale deposits – and other major oil producers coming online (namely Brazil), Trinidad’s share of tax revenues from oil and gas will continue to soften. But locals are quick to point out that there is no actually ‘end’ to the payout of oil and gas – most people anticipate, instead, a slow and steady decline over the next ten to twenty years.
The urgency around stimulating alternative job-creating industries, however, is palpable. Everyone knows that oil and gas won’t always be there as the great provider for this nation of 1.2 million – and that new industry – high tech, light manufacturing, film/ animation, agriculture and professional services are essential.
The unfinished pieces a start-and-stop BPO strategy are not hard to find. Brochures printed in 2007 and published by E-Teck (the government funded body designed to spur inward investment) talk about a technology-rich nation stimulated by demand for nearshore services. An executive with the one active call center in Port of Spain (entirely domestically focused) recalls the time where Trinidad and Costa Rica where at the very same point in their foreign-investment strategy evolution. That was back in the late 90s– when Costa Rica was just closing the largest foreign investment deal in its history – the $300 million arrival of Intel and its huge microprocessing plant. Trinidad, meanwhile, squandered the opportunity to build the foundation for a tech services industry – despite having the wealth, education and governmental support that are often the key elements to getting on the right path.
“We blew it,” said Cadiz, who didn’t hold back in pointing to the failures of government agencies. “In the past five years, E-Teck didn’t create one single job.”
There is no question the pressure is on – and Cadiz speaks with an unmistakable urgency. Executives at E-Teck point to a business zone, called Tamana Park, as an important example of how the country is preparing for services investment. Development of the park has hit roadblocks in recent years, resulting in construction delays and a move by E-Teck to become the outright leaseholder. According to E-Teck, the flagship building – a 70,000 square foot facility – is “70% complete” and construction on the building will resume “shortly.” The University of Trinidad and Tobago is situating a new campus in Tamana, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2013.
Trinidad continues to try to piece together its go-to-market strategy; on one hand emphasizing it is open for business but also acknowledging that the country lacks a strong pool of professionals steeped in customer service, or call center-oriented jobs. However, based on a recent survey conducted by E-Teck, there is a strong base of potential job candidates who are interested in customer services positions.
Over 1,300 respondents participated in the survey, which found the majority of individuals make less than $4.50 an hour. About 40% of respondents are currently unemployed and most are under 30 years old. A surprisingly large number of job candidates have Internet access at home – over 90%, which easily outpaces most locations in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Consumer friendly technology has clearly taken hold in Trinidad, partly boosted by a government program which puts tens of thousands of laptop computers into the hands of school-aged children. In the last two years, Dell and HP have donated over 40,000 computers to the island nation – in the government run program.
In terms of ICT, Trinidad has made strides away from an outright monopoly of fixed lined infrastructure, but it has further steps to travel if it is to become as liberalized as others neighbors in Latin America. Incumbent TSTT (of which portions are owned by longtime regional carrier Cable and Wireless) owns much of the island’s fixed line ICT infrastructure – at least the lines that meet the level of redundancy and reliability required by most nearshore providers. (We didn’t have enough time in Port of Spain to extract the true costs of a T-1 line, but it appears at first glance that such costs are negotiable.)
So where does Trinidad go from here? According to Cadiz, persistence is the key. “We have been knocking on doors to bring in investment,” he says. “We know we can’t sit here and wait for people to come. We have limited time.”
Interested in learning more about Trinidad as a location for investment: Contact the author of this story Kirk Laughlin