Operators expecting boom in Jamaican market as top destination for companies
Local business process outsourcing (BPO) operators are reporting an uptick in business since the start of the year, but say the sector will only reach its full potential if there is improvement to Jamaica's broadband infrastructure.
The uncertainty in the business environment in leading outsourcing destinations in the Asian continent in the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak has resulted in a flurry of opportunities for local operators, particularly in the data sensitive banking or insurance processes, which could see a rebound beyond pre-COVID conditions by year-end.
“Jamaica has always been seen as a top destination, but we have become more attractive to investors and especially US-based firms, since COVID, especially as a near shore destination,” said one operator, who requested that their name be withheld.
“Several firms lost hospitality clients, but are now experiencing better business, because we are just a few minutes away from the US, with a proven labour pool that delivers.”
“Insurance and setting appointments are booming, because people are trying to ensure that their critical illness insurances and others don't lapse in this COVID period,” the operator suggested.
The local BPO industry plunged from 44,000 individuals employed in March 2020 to just over 35,000 in three months, following the emergence of COVID-19, as outsourcing businesses were forced to modify their operations after one player became the epicentre of the COVID-19 spread locally.
The sector's work-from-home regime was established in response to a need for flexibility in order to maintain jobs, particularly within the context of adhering to the Government's curfew restrictions and COVID-19 workplace protocols.
Conduent, Hinduja Global Solutions (HGS), Teleperformance and Cimpress/Vistaprint are among some of the global leaders in outsourcing that are operating locally, while home-grown companies like itelBPO Smart Solution has been expanding its operations throughout the region with locations in the US, Mexico, Bahamas, and St Lucia, along with its two sites in Jamaica.
100 PER CENT GROWTH
Anand Biradsor, senior vice president and country head of HGS Jamaica, is forecasting a 100 per cent growth in employees across the sector over the next five years, but that depends on whether or not Internet issues with speed, stability and the reach are addressed.
“The slower it takes will be the slower the growth,” Biradsor told The Sunday Gleaner after surprising his 3,400 workers with a US$1 million bonus payout at the end of the 2020-2021 financial year.
“What's happening in India and the Philippines only grows our opportunities, and the fact that Jamaica has already returned to where they used to be pre-pandemic makes me as optimistic and bullish as I've always been, and even as we fight through this pandemic, I think we have a very big opportunity to increase to 55,000 (employees) in the next 12 to 18 months,” chairman and CEO of itelBPO, Yoni Epstein, declared.
“Jamaica was a hit destination for outsourcing before the pandemic and I think the prospect for further growth is amazing,” added Epstein, who is also the chairman of the Global Services Skills Council.
“Work from home is here to stay,” he said. “There are some pluses to working from home. Realistically, the BPO sector is more promising now than before the pandemic.”
Approximately 50 per cent of the BPO workforce is working from home, but some operators say their employees who are living in more rural areas are plagued with constant disruptions in their service.
INVESTED OVER $40 BILLION
According to Kayon Mitchell, director of communication and stakeholder engagement at FLOW Jamaica, the quality of service a customer receives is based on their type of network connection (whether it is copper or fibre).
“The Internet speeds on the copper network are slower than on our fibre network and it is vulnerable to vandalism and theft by criminals,” the communications director said in response to several questions from The Sunday Gleaner. “Another impacting factor is cable damage caused by external factors such as bush fires, accidents and high vehicles.”
The telecoms giant says it has invested over $40 billion and delivered services to more than 750 communities under phase one of their Mission Connect Programme since 2016, with the next phase of infrastructure investment to upgrade communities across the country.
“In addition, we targeted communities and areas where we know there are concentrations of call centre agents,” she said.
Pressed on her company's ability to respond to the demands of the outsourcing industry, Mitchell said that continuous investment is being made to the fibre network to meet the work-from-home demands associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, but reiterated that customers utilising the copper network will experience slower Internet speeds.
“This legacy technology which allows for basic Internet usage may be inadequate for the use of consistent high-definition video often associated with Microsoft Teams and Zoom meetings when working from home,” Mitchell warned.
itelBPO says it has spent over US$1 million for additional capital expenditure and operating expenses to protect its business and staff. Thirty per cent of the staff now works from home, including Romaine Ward, a tech support advisor who says he prefers the work-at-home model.
Ward says he gets additional support to pursue his studies after work and his employer also subsidises his utility cost.
BPO companies interviewed said they have invested in technology that remotely monitors activity on the screen of the employee, with one firm mooting the use of cameras, with the consent of the agents, for facial recognition to ensure that it is the same person that is supposed to be at work that is logged in.
Lynda Langford, country director for Conduent Jamaica, has approximately 49 per cent of her 4,200 associates working from home.
“Our experience has been very positive. We've seen an increase in employee satisfaction along with increased productivity,” Langford said in response to questions from The Sunday Gleaner. “This is directly attributable to associates being able to spend more time with their families and increased flexibility with work hours.”
However, Langford attributes the rebound of the sector to companies being increasingly confident in doing business in countries like Jamaica, not the misfortunes of destinations in Asia.
“While we are moving in the right direction, there is still some way to go,” she said. “Conduent has gone to great lengths to ensure our associates remain healthy and safe during the pandemic, and we will continue to do so.”
She added, “We share the widespread concern over the COVID-19 impact in those areas. While we are anticipating growth with some of our existing clients as well as expanding with new opportunities, this is not related to the impact of COVID-19 in those regions.”