Educational Institutes Tackle the Root of Colombia’s Key Weakness

There are still huge hurdles that Colombia must overcome to improve Colombian BPO, but with initiatives like this, perhaps other educational institutes will soon start to follow suit.

Over the last few years, the government of Colombia has been ramping up its plan to decrease national unemployment, relying to some extent on the BPO industry as a catalyst for that reduction, despite shortcomings in national bilingualism. As a result, a number of educational institutes and initiatives are working to support Colombian BPO as the country looks to seize more nearshore opportunities.

One of the Colombia’s key tools in its employment strategy is the National Learning Service, (SENA for its acronym in Spanish), a public educational institute offering free training courses to the masses. Established in June 1957 by diplomat Rodolfo Martínez Tono, SENA has been providing complimentary training to people of all ages to prepare them for roles in almost all industries, particularly technology, agriculture, and mining. Today, the institute has nearly 28,000 teachers nationwide and provides free education to over 8 million Colombians.

“The aim of SENA is to generate an environment that will benefit the Colombian population, while at the same time benefiting companies operating in the country,” said Fabian Saavedra, President of Colombia’s BPO/ITO/KPO Council. During his tenure on the Council, Saavedra has been responsible for promoting Colombian BPO and providing SENA with guidelines to help the institute build stronger relationships with private BPO companies.

Preparing Students for BPO Careers

fabian saavedra colombian bpo
Fabian Saavedra: “The volume of English knowledge is low in Colombia, but there are local initiatives that are working towards Colombia’s future with the language.”

In order to fast track into a career in BPO, students at SENA can learn specific techniques for using the telephone, or take part in customer service training courses, as well as picking up skills in technical support and sales, to name a few. These courses and curricula are designed around job descriptions and materials provided to the institute by BPO companies, so are often tailored specifically to a company culture, enabling students to develop the required skills before being offered a job at the firm. According to Saavedra, this is helping to generate a lot of interest in the industry, as well as lightening the burden of a national talent shortage.

“If Colombia wants to improve in the BPO space, we must strengthen our talent pool, which is the main ambition of SENA,” said Saavedra. “Between 2010 and 2015, Colombia was able to capture some of the BPO market from Argentina. This happened when the value of the Argentinian peso against the U.S. dollar actually drove human capital into Colombia. However, there is still insufficient talent available to meet our market requirements.”

Growth amid Talent Crisis

Even against this backdrop of a talent deficit, companies like Teleperformance, Sutherland, Genpact, Convergys, and Atento have all set up operations in Colombia and are experiencing growth. The Colombian BPO industry on a whole is growing around 12-13% annually; five years ago the industry generated nearly US$3 billion, but is now generating close to US$5.5 billion.

According to the latest study by ACDECC, the BPO sector’s operational incomes grew 10.3% in 2014, with the telecommunications sector representing 52.7% of the industries served. The main services Colombia is known for are collections, back office activities, and Spanish-language contact centers, the latter of which has been great for Colombian BPO in Latin America and Spain, but doesn’t help secure more U.S. clients.

“As we often hear, there aren’t enough people in Colombia with sufficient English skills,” said Saavedra. “It’s a key barrier to further BPO growth, for sure. The volume of English knowledge is low, but there are local initiatives that are working towards Colombia’s future with the language.”

Cali Leading by Example

Go Cali is an initiative led by the Bureau of Bilingualism in Santiago de Cali that emerged as a result of a public-private partnership between companies, professionals, and academia. “Go Cali aims to strengthen foreign language skills in the short term, improving English skills for students and teachers of official educational institutions in Santiago de Cali,” said Saavedra.

The initiative began in September with a pilot consisting of four pillars: Lifetime English, which teaches students in grades 10 and 11 through 15 levels of training in speaking, listening, reading and writing; English together, which teaches students at grade 6-9 from 16 private bilingual schools to stimulate learning and practice English in different environments; Conversations Club, which offers complementary spaces to practice English outside the classroom; and Masterful English, which is focused on strengthening skills for teachers, especially basic primary.

Go Cali is attacking the issue of bilingualism at the very root, by integrating English capabilities into formal educational institutes for early stage students. According to Amcham Colombia, “This is the first step towards a Bilingual Cali, allowing citizens to be players in a globalized economy, and provide them with better opportunities in national and international environments.”

Preparing for a KPO Future

According to Saavedra, KPO is still far from being developed in Colombia because of the level of technology and education involved. “Compared to the rest of the world, Colombia has minimal representation in KPO, but is doing things like testing for medical companies, such as with new medicines,” he explained. “There is also testing being performed in the engineering industry and aerospace manufacturing. But, if the country is to scale its capacity for KPO, it will require more engineers, more cybersecurity experts, and more people skilled in mathematics, science, and technology.”

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According to ProColombia, Barranquilla, Bogota, and the Coffee Cultural Landscape (PCC) are currently some of the best locations for small-scale KPO projects, due to their strong workforce in management and engineering. Additionally, Medellin has around 51,000 professionals on management and engineering courses, suggesting a viable future for financial services, market research, legal services, design and engineering projects in the region.

“Despite the issues the country faces in talent development, the BPO industry is starting to gain real visibility in Colombia,” said Saavedra. “The government is becoming increasingly aware that the industry is helping to generate economic growth in Colombia, so has even begun promoting the industry in other countries. Key industry stakeholders are also aware of how the industry is helping Colombia, as it continues to grow and create more opportunities for the country, so we expect it to become one of the key BPO players in the nearshore region someday.”

In the end, there are still huge hurdles that Colombia must overcome to achieve this goal, but with initiatives like Go Cali and national institutions like SENA showing that the Colombian BPO industry is worth developing talent for, perhaps others will soon start to follow suit.

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