Jamaica pride itself as a leading Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) location with sixty-one (61) companies offering call centre and BPO services. Named a priority sector for the Government of Jamaica, it is no wonder this Caribbean destination was the one of choice for the inaugural Outsource to the Caribbean Conference (OCC), themed “Leveraging the Nearshore Caribbean for Outsourcing Services”. Jointly organized by Caribbean Export Development Agency (CEDA) and the Caribbean Association of Investment Promotion Agencies (CAIPA), it was funded by the European Union via the 11th European Development Fund (EDF). CEDA is the only regional trade and investment promotion agency in the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group.
The 18 country-strong event which ran from 5th to 7th December 2017 at Iberostar Beach Hotel, Montego Bay, opened with a Welcome Reception and Regional Investor of the Year Awards. The awards recognized regional investors who have made extensive contribution to the region’s development and growth. Attendees took the opportunity to network, highly anticipating the day that followed. The tour of the Montego Bay Free Zone, home of Yoni Epstein’s itelBPO, a major sponsor, was a fitting climax to an informative, content rich event.
At the start of the OCC, the Honourable Sharlene Cartwright-Robinson, Premier of the Turks and Caicos Islands boasted, “Now is the time to do business with the Caribbean”. She gave in her defense, strategic location; skilled labour force; competitively priced labour; labour retention; environment that supports businesses and high quality of life.
The deafening cry heard time and again for better data collection and analysis within the Caribbean was echoed by Pamela Coke-Hamilton, Executive Director, CEDA’s Director. “We need data to support what we do. Without the data, we cannot make sensible decision”, she added. Notwithstanding, she provided an informative overview:
“Given the existing contribution of the outsourcing sector to job creation in the region and its potential for expansion, we believe that it must be given priority. In 2010, the sector provided employment for 47,000 workers and by 2015, this number had increased to 74,000; this is an average of 5,000 workers being added annually. BPO and other professional services generated over US$2 billion in revenue in 2014. Calculations show that companies in the region generate close to US$25 million in revenue for every 1,000 agents.”
After the main remarks, a number of panel discussions ensued. The discussion on ‘Caribbean Talent’ was a highlight. Professor Paul Aiken, Head of the Engineering Department, University of the West Indies spoke of the opportunity for Jamaica to leverage ‘Reverse Logistics”. The idea is to establish a local facility that would repair broken parts/products bought on Amazon for example and sell them to other territories as refurbished items.
Jamaica’s Minister of Finance, the Honourable Audley Shaw, when asked about the kinds of viable opportunities available to prospective entrepreneurs within the current BPO landscape, had this to say:
“It is clearly a great area for growth, not just in jobs but for entrepreneurship. A lot of the people abroad are not themselves wanting to set up their own operations but to contract their work to an independent operator. It is an area that I would commend to JAMPRO in its promotional programme, both in terms of identifying potential entrepreneurs, making sure they are getting trained as well as including that into the market overseas to say, we have the entrepreneurs, we have the market place and we have the people.”
In response to the same question, Coke-Hamilton had this to say:
“It is an incredible landscape for the downstream opportunities of the sector. If you have a set of persons answering phones, there is also the opportunity for offering transcription services, training on how to answer the phone, cultural sensitivity training, transportation services, security services, legal and medical facilities. These are all things that can be done around the ecosystem of the BPO.” She further hinted at the opportunity for students leaving university for example to start writing culturally sensitive scripts for companies. There are various levels of entry but some things are low barrier, making it more accessible to startups.”
She continued, “There is an opportunity to improve on our customer service to train people in understand value. If people understand why they need to be nice to people it will make a difference. Understanding that being nice is not being subservient. This is true for many of us post-slave societies – moving from this post-slave, rebellious nature to an understanding of our end game. A mind-set shift is needed.”
President of Jamaica Promotion (JAMPRO) and CAIPA, Diane Edwards elaborated:
“The best example of entrepreneurship I can give right now is Yoni Epstein. He started his operation with 7 people in a small room and who is now at 1,000 plus members of staff. There is entrepreneurial opportunity available but you have to know the industry. Spend time to research it. It is high-performance requiring you to be close to your customers and satisfying them. Choose which niche to get into, which may not require a vast number of people. Legal process outsourcing is a great niche one can enter into. There is an opportunity to create entrepreneurs in this space.”
It was a commendable first initiative, with obvious room for improvement. It is unfortunate that many of the tables allocated for the various countries were without a representative even provisions were made for them to be there.
Now that the discussions have been elevated, we can now examine how the model can be improved upon, impacting not just the employment challenges within the region but that of underemployment as well.