There’s no doubt that Jamaica is making great strides in its approach to BPO, especially when developing enough talent to fill agent, middle-management, and operational roles, but the island is reportedly experiencing a talent gap that no-one is talking about: senior management.
“There is certainly a mature talent base in the middle-management level of HR and operations, but not so much at the senior director level and up, where there is still a huge gap,” said Debra Fraser, CEO at Caribbean HR Solutions, a Jamaican specialist firm in HR outsourcing.
Fraser and her company have been in business since August 2010, starting out with a small BPO operation in the Montego Bay area. Hailing from the BPO industry in Canada, Fraser worked with US clients before coming to Jamaica, where she has been supporting BPOs such as Sutherland, Ibex, and Concentrix with mass recruitment initiatives and HR-specific consultations.
Today, she is educating her BPO clients on the realities of the Jamaica talent pool, and helping to improve the quality of their people, whom, she says, are sometimes taken for granted, leading to an issue that has gone under the radar.
Reasons for the Gap in Senior Management
According to Fraser, one ingrained aspect of the Jamaican work culture that has caused this trend is an aging model where companies “manage down”, instead of today’s approach of serving the production line staff and empowering them in their roles as a means of motivation and retention. But the industry has since come around, and the knowledge pool is getting deeper as a result.
“In terms of people who know best practices in managing and retaining staff, it’s 100% better than it was 5 years ago,” said Fraser. “And while there has been great collaboration between the government and the industry to increase the talent pool, both in numbers and quality, no-one is really talking about the gap in leadership.”
Fraser believes that the operations manager level is “robust”, and that clients are very impressed with middle management, but also that there is simply not enough senior management talent to meet the rush of BPO growth in Jamaica.
This is clearly a real challenge, so companies are coming up with creative strategies to overcome it.
Strategic Internal Development Plans
One well-known player, Itel-BPO Solutions, has over 1,000 people in Jamaica alone. The company’s CEO, Yoni Epstein, also said that the senior management deficit would have been worse around five years ago, and there has been an overall development in the local mindset for upper management since then.
Culturally, Epstein says, Jamaican people are highly motivated to get to higher levels, and that one of the complaints he hears is that team members want more opportunities for growth. Even so, the front line is driven by a large bulk of people, and things are driven by ratios for supervisors, operations, and subject matter experts, so there are less senior managers required for new accounts than there are front-line individuals.
“Itel-BPO provides an online virtual training platform with a career roadmap for people to grow within the company,” said Epstein. “If an individual follows that roadmap and passes the training course, then they become eligible for higher positions. As they progress, we start to put them on different tracks, knowing that they can at some point step into a leadership role.”
As an example, one of the Itel’s supervisors was promoted to operations manager for the same account he was working, and has recently been promoted to a directorship position in customer service and operations on a new account.
“He has come through the ranks in nine months, using his expertise, dedication, and industry knowledge to go from supervisor to director in that short time,” said Epstein. “Most of our guys were, in many cases, the “B-Team” – the executives were the “A-Team” – so they were on the ground doing the bulk of the job. I pulled those guys into the A-Team to develop them into my executives, because they just never had somebody who gave them that chance before. They may have been a little early, but I wanted to take a chance on them because they were ready and I believed in them. That is how we built our executive team that we have today.”
Aside from the internal promotions route, some companies are looking outwards and bringing in experienced expats to fill the gaps.
“BPOs and the Jamaican diaspora are looking for people who are not traditional expats – as that reignites a 10-15 year old approach they moved away from – instead finding people who have traveled and worked at other global centers of excellence,” said Fraser.
But aren’t expats far more costly than local hires? How are BPOs able to go down this route?
Instead of traditional expat packages, there are now more blended packages, where some companies will offset housing costs and utilities and transport expenses. These are replacing the more traditional “robust” packages, which include fly backs, tax assistance, personal drivers, and other perks.
“They are getting a lot leaner,” said Fraser. “Companies are searching for professionals who have already worked abroad, are maybe single, and are “built to travel”, in terms of what may be holding them back.”
Jamaican talent in senior levels are paid competitively on a global scale, so the higher the rates go, the more companies look at adding an expat package to increase their search range. The gap in the difference between paying Jamaican senior management and offering a “lean” expat package is closing pretty rapidly, which is a truth that many in the industry are uncomfortable with, according to Fraser.
At Itel-BPO, only one of the company’s 1,000 people is an expat – the rest of the workforce are 100% Jamaican. That expat – now managing a team of 300 people – was already in the country on another campaign, but was brought over to the Itel team due to their in-depth knowledge and experience of the client.
“I’m not surprised to hear that there are foreigners coming into the country as expats, because the industry is growing so fast,” said Epstein. “I think that it’s somewhat of a time issue, as some people are not able to make it to those levels as fast as the industry requires them.”
Another provider, Teleperformance, has several thousand employees, but only has two expats on the ground, one of whom married a Jamaican and has two kids, so isn’t really considered an expat anymore. Some of the other centres, such as Conduent, have senior level Jamaicans in high positions, but, looking at the overall size of the industry compared to the amount of expats, it’s a low percentage.
Impacts to the Agent Level
BPOs don’t tend to share salaries or compensation information publicly (as we well know), but that may be changing in Jamaica for a number of reasons.
“One of the new trends in Jamaica, from a strategic perspective, is that some BPOs are being more comfortable about advertising their rates and salaries in things like newspaper ads,” said Fraser. “This is not yet mainstream, but, if they are competitive rates, this is a positive move as it helps increase their pipeline very quickly.”
On the other hand, Fraser stressed that Jamaican agents and production staff, and Jamaican people in general, are not really motivated to jump ship for a meager 0.50 cent raise, per se, as may be the case in other countries. Instead, due to the lack of social systems in place, people value their jobs and value stability, so an environment where they feel respected and are treated fairly is extremely important.
“Companies don’t always understand that, so they need to hire senior management people that understand the Jamaican psyche,” said Fraser. “In the senior management roles, you want somebody who can motivate staff and who treats people fairly, not just someone who can display the right energy when they’re being evaluated, so companies should always broaden their search from the get go.”
At Caribbean HR Solutions, the company is urging clients to follow a similar roadmap that Itel has laid out, and, when filling the top roles with people outside the country, selecting individuals within the company to develop internally.
“Ultimately, we all want the same thing, and that is the best for Jamaica,” concluded Fraser.