AGEXPORT has a goal. As a part of its overall aim to increase business in Guatemala, it wants to triple the number of call center and BPO workers in the nation in the next six years. There are currently somewhere between 35,000 and 39,000 industry employees in the nation, so that gives them a mission to eclipse 100,000 before 2022.
Given that the country of more than 16 million people already produces some 180,000 college graduates each year, AGEXPORT’S Ninoshka Linde thinks the potential is there. “We have the talent pool available for the industry to grow,” said Linde, director of the organization’s contact center and BPO commission.
The challenge now is to get more of those college-educated population trained in the specific areas that are appealing to BPO and call center firms. To do this, AGEXPORT is focusing on what it calls “near hires,” people who know English and want to work in the industry but have an accent, fluency, or other skills-based issue that is holding them back. “Some of them can be transformed with intensive training,” said Linde.
The name of the solution shows the group’s laser focus: the Finishing School Certification for Call Center Representatives. The school is an intensive training program that requires 400 hours — eight hours per day for 10 weeks — and puts the students together to learn more about American culture and practice their accents. It recently concluded its pilot program of 98 participants, more than two-thirds of which are 26 years old or younger, including 32 students who are 20 or younger.
In just 10 weeks, those people became ready to work in the industry, and the school was also busy late last year training teachers to master the methodology, certifying more than 25 in October after 150 hours of coursework. More teachers will lead to more students — AGEXPORT estimates they will have 1,500 in 2016 — and a larger talent pool for companies to hire.
To ensure that the curriculum is suited to the skills needed, the organization established a board made up of executives from eight of the most prominent companies in the country, including 7, Telus, Allied Global, and EGS. Their participation is seen as critical, and they have helped in a subsidizing effort that puts the student’s tuition cost at just $125 (a financial burden that can be eased even further through friendly terms for loans that will be easily repayable upon employment). Linde hopes the input from these companies will help AGEXPORT stay up to date on the latest needs in the industry and keep the school ahead of the curve when training potential employees the in newest specializations.
“The companies are really excited about the program,” said Linde. “It has given them a fresh, new talent pool…They are really betting on Guatemala as a nearshore destination.”
In addition to the immediate hiring bump this gives firms, an added benefit is their ability to project and plan for future growth. In the past, call centers in Guatemala were gambling a bit when they decided to increase their chair count. But now they can chart the number of Finishing School graduates in the months and years to come and know exactly how many hirable people are entering the work force.
Best of all, says Linde, this is just the beginning. “The Finishing School is only the tip of the iceberg of all the projects that we are going to put in place for training people in the skills that are necessary for the industry,” said Linde.
Some of the other key initiatives are what she calls “ecosystem enablers” and demand creation, although the latter isn’t as high of a priority since Linde says that “clients are already asking for Guatemala” and the only barrier is the size of the talent pool.
The average Guatemalan makes just $7,700 per year, a low total even for Latin America and less than half of what the average Costa Rican earns. This means that the Finishing School can change lives for people who struggle to find good-paying wages in an economically depressed country. “We are aiming for kids that are going to appreciate the work,” she said. “With this opportunity that we are giving them, they are going to be able to bring home a salary that is going to be doubling the family income.”
But this, like Guatemala’s population, offers an inherent advantage. It has more than three times as many people as Costa Rica, four times as many as Panama, and nearly twice as many as Honduras, which with 8.9 million is the next closest to Guatemala’s 16.2 million. Add this to the lower wages in Guatemala compared to Costa Rica and Panama, and the potential for growth is obvious. Though the results are just starting to be seen, Lind is confident the Finishing School and the industry at large “will have a great and positive impact in the life of thousands of Guatemalans.”