The Guatemala Finishing School for Call Center Representatives has started to show signs of success, as 1,000 graduates reportedly joined the BPO industry in 2016, with 2,000 more expected to be ready this year.
Created in 2015 by the Guatemalan Exporters Association (AGEXPORT) in collaboration with over a dozen BPO players in the market, the Guatemala Finishing School offers young people with limited resources and base level English skills a chance to thrive in the BPO industry.
“Young Guatemalans don’t have the time or the money to learn English, and often don’t possess the level to enter some of our internal courses,” said Manuel Gordo, CEO at Allied Global, one of the many BPO collaborators on the project.
“Last year, we graduated around 1,000 people in this full-immersion English-language course, and our goal for 2017 is to double that up to 2,000.”
Along with Allied Global, the program is supported by 13 other companies, including Xerox, Conduent, Alorica, Telus, Genpact, and 7. Each company is committing US$1 million per year to develop and sustain the project.
The training program requires that students commit to an intensive course for eight hours per day, six days a week, for 10 weeks. This immersion allows them to learn about US culture and practice their accents, focusing more on speaking fluency than on academic grammar.
While the cost of the full course is only GTQ$500 (US$68) to cover basic learning materials, there are still some people who cannot stretch that far, so the Ministry of Economy and the National Training Institute (INTECAP) have agreed to fund grants for those who can’t afford it.
In comparison, a similar course for the same time frame in an English academy can cost anything from US$5,000 to US$10,000 – an unattainable figure for most Guatemalans.
In an Allied Global study of people who entered the industry, the company found that the average income for a four-person family income is GTQ$5,000 a month. “With one family member in the BPO industry, that can be multiplied significantly,” said Gordo.
This financial factor, Gordo says, is the main attraction factor for fresh students. “BPO salaries are enough motivation for people to join the course,” he said. “The problem, though, is still finding the level of English to enter the program.”
High School Pilot
Gordo highlighted that many Guatemalans have a minimum level of English proficiency, but not enough to enter most English academies in the country. This, he says, is because their grammar skills are passable, but their ability with spoken English leaves much to be desired.
To overcome this issue, the program is next year extending a pilot to work on preparing students during their last two years of high school. In Guatemala City alone, there are 150,000 high school graduates every year, many of whom don’t have great prospects after graduation.
The program has already partnered with 20 schools, giving it a base of 10,000 potential students for 2018.
Prepping the Infrastructure and the Teachers
As the Guatemala Finishing School scales up, so too does the need for infrastructure. INTECAP is providing most of the infrastructure around Guatemala City and the surrounding areas to house the students.
“One big hurdle was that there were not enough teachers to scale, so we have also been training more trainers to overcome this,” said Gordo. “Most teachers are Guatemalans, either previously working as teachers in other institutions, or working in call centers where they picked up the right skills for training.”
For Guatemalans, this necessity for more agents and more teachers is creating an upward momentum in terms of career progression. Once graduated, new BPO workers can expect to go from an agent level to a supervisor, to eventually becoming an English teacher themselves.
“Our ultimate goal is to scale it up and turn it into a national program,” said Gordo. “We have a social responsibility to improve the lives of our people, and that’s what we are going to do.”
Following the success of Guatemala Finishing School, the next step for the industry, according to Gordo, is to create the same project in Honduras. “The government is happy with the Guatemala story, so Honduras is next,” he concluded.