A Call Center Destination
A few months ago, I and other 'leading' site consultants and call center executives attended a thorough three-day tour and overview of Jamaica from the perspective of a call center/back office location for potential investors. This activity was sponsored by JAMPRO, the marketing and promotions agency for the government of Jamaica.
Certainly I, along with the others, was interested in viewing first-hand the local runnings ' the island from a business investment standpoint. Yes, if not careful, one could easily become sidetracked with the historic beauty and cultural charm of the place and totally miss the point of why this country could become the next hot spot for contact centers. Mind you, the Caribbean has been making waves (sorry, I couldn't help it) for some time, touting areas such as Barbados, Trinidad and the Dominican Republic'but Jamaica?
Why, I wondered initially, would you even think about putting a call center in a vacation and tourism Mecca? What was the Jamaican government thinking? My questions were answered.
This enlightened effort by the government began about two years ago, in 2000, as a part of its Information Technology Employment Creation (INTEC) project. This is an initiative designed to create a knowledge-based society driven by increased foreign investment in information technology services over a five-year period. A hybrid strategy was formulated involving major support sectors such as education/training, marketing and real estate.
First, I was particularly interested in finding out more about the people, their skills and capabilities. Second, I needed to know about the telecommunications capabilities. I wanted to see buildings, sites and facilities that could potentially house the call center operations. I wanted to know how simple it would be to set up shop and all of the intricacies involved in the process. This need for information and the quantification of the data is the same anywhere in the world. I wanted to see how Jamaica would compare under the intense scrutiny that I, as a site selector representing call center operations of various sizes and types or others as potential corporate investors, would certainly demand and evaluate.
Jamaica has a population of 2.6 million people, with 800,000 in Kingston, the island nation's capital and administrative center. As of October 2001, there was a 16 percent unemployment level
(see Table 1) with 63 percent of those falling in the 20 to 34 age range. (Source: Statistical Institute of Jamaica, 2002.)
|Table 1. Unemployment by region.
Major City by Region Number in
Montego Bay 88,000
Certainly this information would seem to direct interested parties to consider these regions and cities based on the unemployment data alone; however, depending on the type of operation, the selection criteria may be more weighted to finding underemployed people ' workers willing to move up to call center-related jobs where the earning potential may be greater. The tourism and hospitality industries can provide an ample supply of workers who have, in fact, been well-trained in customer service skills.
According to data provided by JAMPRO, the annual wages for call center employees and managers as expressed in U.S. dollars are:
Call Center Supervisor $15,000
Network Administrator $25,000
Call Center Agent
For a more exact estimate, add 23.88 percent to the aforementioned costs for employee benefits. Optional benefits include health insurance, transportation and uniform allowance. Throughout the tours, we were all simultaneously shocked and impressed to see many call center agents in uniforms and were informed that this is a great source of pride among the agents. Transportation to work is generally by bus and, in some cases, coordinated and provided by the employer, as car ownership is not as common as in the U.S.
Employers are eligible for reimbursable training grants for their call center agents. This reimbursement is administered by the Human Employment and Resource Training Trust (HEART). HEART is the state agency responsible for vocational training. Companies can access these grants up to a maximum of J$20,000 per employee.
I visited several HEART facilities, including the main campus, and was pleased to see and hear firsthand from the faculty the level of time and commitment dedicated to ensuring employer satisfaction in meeting the call center needs from selection through pre-employment training. HEART has a 280-hour call center curriculum that includes customer service, telephone skills, selling products and services, computer technology and database management. There is an additional 100-hour
support module that includes language and communication, calculations and computations and employability skills. Careful attention is provided to producing a quality worker for the call center industry.
I also visited the Caribbean Institute of Technology (CIT), which is a software development institution run in conjunction with HEART. The CIT offers a two-track curriculum that includes a core of standard C, SQL, HTML to full-blown e-commerce.
I also visited the CISCO Networking Academy program at the HEART campus. This program offers up to 10 semesters leading to industry standard certification.
I had the pleasure to monitor a few calls (I chose the agent at random), as I wanted to determine for myself if accent was an issue. I was pleased to hear articulate British English, which was quite enjoyable and easily understandable.
Naturally, I was very interested in this key area in terms of both providers and cost. Cable and Wireless, through its subsidiary Jamaica Digiport International Limited (JDI), is the provider for services in the Jamaica Free Zones (more on that later). The rates offered by JDI range from $0.07 per minute for companies generating traffic to the U.S., with a minimum of 3 million minutes per month, to $0.15 for companies with less than 3 million minutes monthly.
Call centers that are granted 'single entity free zone status' can establish their own telecommunications infrastructure using VSAT or other technologies. Telecommunications may also be provided by private free zone entities, as well.
Costs (in U.S. dollars) are presented in Table 2.
These prices include the Jamaican 1/2 channel charges only and do not include the
U.S. local loop charges and state taxes.
It's important to remember that when compared to the U.S., telecommunications costs may be higher but labor costs are significantly lower. This should be taken into account when comparing to other countries.
Buildings And Sites
Jamaica's 'Free Trade Zones' are areas similar to a business park or industrial complex and are either government owned or privately owned. These zones can also be a 'single entity zone,' which means a call center could have its own zone. The zones were started in Jamaica in 1976 and are in place to provide services such as onsite customs, work permits for non-nationals, security, private access and certain legal and professional services as well as provide some tax advantages. There are three export free zones operated by the government: the Kingston and Garmex zones in Kingston and the Montego Bay free zone. In addition, I visited the privately owned Cazoumar free zone in Montego Bay. These zones have office space available that would compare favorably to high-end Class B space in the U.S., and were well maintained. The rates were $8.50 to $13 (U.S.). There were canteen cafeteria services available for the workers, which helps make the zones very self-contained.
Factories Corporation of Jamaica also provides office space, which ranges from 20,000 to 60,000 sq. ft., including the Goodyear Informatics Park located in the St. Thomas Parish. This is actually a former Goodyear manufacturing plant that is being converted to a 30-acre business park for the information industry.
I had to watch my step as workers were pouring cement for the call center space.
In addition to viewing Jamaica's facilities, I spoke with call center operators such as Sitel Caribbean, a joint venture with U.S.-based Sitel and Jamaican entrepreneurs; Apple Vacations, a Pennsylvania-headquartered company; Teleservices Direct, based in Indianapolis, Indiana; OverDrive, the Ohio-based world leader in digital publishing; and Satellite Imaging Systems from Dallas. They were happy with their experiences in Jamaica and invited companies to come see for themselves.
I believe there is ample room for more call centers and back-office operations in Jamaica, as labor costs are as attractive as the workers' skills and abilities and telecommunications costs will decrease with competition. More important, the government wants the investment in the jobs.
My only question is, how does one keep a straight face when volunteering for call center winter duty in Jamaica?
Please e-mail your comments and/or questions to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the latest information on call center sites and locations, visit www.callcentersites.net.
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