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Debunking the 'call centre myth' - Era of low-skill recruits fading away, says Sutherland Global boss

Published:Thursday | December 15, 2016 | 12:00 AMNeville Graham
Odetta Rockhead Kerr, associate vice- president and country head of the Jamaica operations at Sutherland Global Services.

Country Head and associate vice-president at Sutherland Global Services Odetta Rockhead Kerr wants to erase the perception of call centres in Jamaica as a low-skill employer.

She cites Sutherland's own sectoral reputation as a top recruiter whose agents are equipped to resolve technical problems as a face of the sector's move up the value chain.

Sutherland Global's Jamaica operation has grown at an annual rate of around 1,000 employees in four years and there are plans to more than double its current workforce of 4,000 to 10,000 in three years across six locations.

"We want at least three additional facilities over the next 12 months. We will put one somewhere in the west, additional space in Kingston, and Mandeville, which is doing so well that we just have to do more in that region," Rockhead Kerr said.

Regarding the move out west, Rockhead Kerr said the location was yet to be finalised but that the choice had been narrowed to three parishes.

Now that the company is ramping up its recruitment drive once again, Rockhead Kerr insisted on addressing what she calls "the call centre myth" that business process outsourcing - or BPO firms - only have glorified telephone operators who pester customers with telemarketing calls.

She says the Jamaican BPO sector is moving past that and has long entered the higher levels of the value chain.

"What has happened is that it was always perceived as low-end jobs, but BPOs have been doing finance and accounting for the last 10 years for large Fortune 50 clients," Rockhead Kerr declared, citing her 20 years' experience in the business.

She says that many don't know that BPO companies operating in Jamaica are taking care of non-core services for large companies overseas and doing so more efficiently than the firm doing the outsourcing.

"Those services can range from tech support to medical BPO. There is also legal and HR. In fact, whatever can be outsourced can be done by a BPO company, and it is being done in Jamaica," the Sutherland country head said.

For the last four years, Sutherland has built up a reputation as a preferred employer in Jamaica's BPO sector. About 50 per cent of the 1,300 employees at the company's UWI Mona facility are students working to pay their way through college.

Rockhead Kerr calls it the 'Earn Where You Learn' programme and says that the model has been attracting interest for replication in places like Brazil and a few African countries.

The Sutherland Global country head credits former UWI Mona principal Professor Gordon Shirley, assisted by George Stewart, for the idea of having students work in their off hours to earn enrolment, saving cash that would keep them from dropping out of university.

"When I heard of the model, I thought I have to be a part of this," Rockhead Kerr said. As it turned out, it was Jampro that played the part of matchmaker and got the parties together since UWI was looking to set up a BPO centre but didn't know how to enter the market.

"Jampro made the introduction to Professor Shirley and he said he was concerned that the dropout rate at UWI had increased, and we needed to find something that can pair with our students very well to give them the ability to earn and, as such, keep them enrolled," Rockhead Kerr recalled.

The UWI Mona call centre went live in November 2012, with 24 employees and did its first transaction on Christmas Eve of that year.

Under the 'Earn Where You Lean' programme, there is scope for student agents to move up the ladder to account managers, a position that pays more than US$65,000 if they decide to join the company after graduation.

Account managers oversee three to six line managers, each of whom, in turn, supervises 10 workers.

Sutherland Global has extended the student-recruitment model to Mandeville, where it struck up a partnership with Northern Caribbean University.

The BPO company has otherwise signed an MOU with the Portmore Community College for that institution to start offering an associate degree in business process management. Rockhead Kerr says that this will provide a rich stream of talent for the BPO sector that will allow companies like Sutherland to continue going after high-value accounts.

"Right now, 80 per cent of our agents are engaged with Fortune 50 companies, and we want to grow that," Rockhead Kerr said.