What it Will Take to Meet El Salvador’s English Demands

Back in 2011, we reported that the most pervasive and challenging issues across the Nearshore region were establishing English language training programs that actually produced well-trained professionals. Among Central …

Quality in education is still a perennial theme in Central America, Jon Felperin says.

Back in 2011, we reported that the most pervasive and challenging issues across the Nearshore region were establishing English language training programs that actually produced well-trained professionals. Among Central American countries, El Salvador has certainly been a leader in such programs.

From Taca Airlines’ first contact center initiatives (now Avianca), and ITCA/FEPADE’s National English Center, to PROESA’s most recent  Improve Your English campaign and  INSAFORP’s current National English Program for Work, El Salvador remains committed to improving English-speaking talent, although more work is needed in order to meet the needs of local outsourcers.

White House Support

The U.S. government is also supporting such efforts in El Salvador. As part of President Barack Obama’s state visit to El Salvador in March 2011, the U.S. government pledged over $200 million to improve security and reduce poverty while generating higher economic growth, mostly through education. Some of this investment supports English initiatives such as teacher training and programs like English Access.

President Obama stated: Under the Central American Citizen Security Partnership that I’m announcing today, we’ll focus $200 million to support efforts here in the region, including addressing, as President (Mauricio) Funes indicated, the social and economic forces that drive young people towards criminality.”

At the same time, El Salvador has also re-signed a second Millennium Challenge Compact, totaling $277 million of additional support. The State Department noted: “The United States looks forward to continuing its successful partnership with the people of El Salvador, through the new MCC compact and the Partnership for Growth, and we hope to see continued progress by the Government of El Salvador in combating corruption and encouraging economic growth, for the benefit of all Salvadorans.”

Much of the U.S. support is aimed at “improving the quality of the education system in order to create a more highly qualified and technologically skilled labor force. The Government of El Salvador (GOES) and the United States will join forces to help ensure that education of the labor supply matches labor market demand.”

According to the May 2014, U.S. Partnership for Growth scorecard, “the U.S. government provided training to 239 English teachers and 200 students continuing English studies. Under a USAID program, 111 high school students graduated after receiving specialized courses in English and Information Technology, and 87% will pursue a college degree. Twenty students were given scholarships to study in community colleges in the United States. And GOES, through the Salvadoran Institute for Professional Training (INSAFORP), invited bids for the National English for Work Program, developed in conjunction with the U.S. government, to teach English to 4,000 participants.”

Thus, the results of focused collaboration among private industry, federal government and USAID continue to bear fruit. Corporate Social Responsibility programs like SUPERATE, now with seven current training centers in El Salvador (two more in Panama and one recently opened in Nicaragua) and continued USAID interest in supporting job training in English and technology to increase the labor pool mean El Salvador will continue to lead all such efforts in Central America.

More Must Be Done

Still, is all of this enough for nearshore investment to flourish? After all, Dell Computers exited quietly from El Salvador in 2008, selling its call center to StreamGlobal, which itself was recently purchased by Convergys. And the Canadian company, Telus International, has now acquired Central American call center operator Transactel.

Moreover, other large and well-known players such as Sykes, Atento and Teleperformance seem to grow incrementally. Even the homegrown local call center Skycom has expanded to a 1,000-seat capacity.

Yet,the elusive English training pipeline has never materialized. As reported back in 2011, quality in education is still a perennial theme in the region and much has been written on the need to modernize curricula and improve quality. In the meantime, however, there continues to be a growing need for well-trained personnel due to expansion efforts.

So what can be done to help build the elusive call center agent pipeline, not only in El Salvador but across Central America? First of all, any efforts must be based on a sustainable model. Government grants, aid, or subsidies will not remove the problem. These efforts can actually worsen it because of wasteful spending and lack of accountability. Secondly, market forces based on actual labor supply and demand should determine training quotas and job placement, not intuition, surveys or whatever the paying public will bear.

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Thirdly, training programs must embrace technology-enhanced language learning to improve productivity and learning outcomes. And finally, training methodology must be based on a coaching, rather than a teaching, model. In much the same way that a supervisor or trainer works with a line agent, using recorded call feedback as the basis for any needed remediation, so too must language training programs better understand the linguistic demands placed on agents and adjust their curriculum accordingly.

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