Barranquilla bets on an English teaching program to satisfy the growing BPO sector

Barranquilla is stepping up its English for Work program as the Colombian city pursues its twin goals of reducing its high unemployment rate and quenching the thirst for bilingual talent in its booming business process outsourcing (BPO) sector. ).

Launched in October 2021, the program has already taught English to over 3,300 young citizens, with plans to increase the number of learners to over 8,000 by the end of 2023.

“Over 70% of young graduates are already working in the bilingual services industry. They are multinational companies that offer growth,” said Jaime Pumarejo, mayor of Barranquilla, according to a report by local media El Heraldo.

If the training program continues at this rate, up to 4,000 Barranquilla residents will have learned English by the end of 2022, the mayor said.

In Barranquilla alone, there are approximately 34 BPO companies, 23 of which are bilingual service providers

Finding English-speaking agents has long been a struggle for BPO companies in Colombia, a country that has seen phenomenal growth in the number of companies providing global services in recent months.

It’s unclear how many English-speaking Colombians are currently working in the country’s contact center industry. In his 2017 interview with Nearshore Americas, Ricardo Duran, managing director of Outsourcing SA, said that only 4% of the contact center labor pool in Colombia is bilingual.

That’s a small number compared to the size of the country’s bilingual BPO industry. In Barranquilla alone, there are about 34 BPO companies, 23 of which are bilingual service providers, according to ProColombia, the country’s investment promotion agency.

English and Colombia

Among Latin American and Caribbean countries, Colombia was ranked 15th in the latest edition of the EF English Proficiency Index. Globally, it ranked 81st, sitting in the bottom rung of the 112-country scale.

English is not taught in elementary schools in Colombia. Also, there are few teachers, and although many can write in English, they lack the skills to speak it fluently.

There are several private institutions that teach English in the country, but they are very expensive. Consequently, hiring bilingual talent is expensive and potential employees prefer to try their luck in higher paying sectors, such as hotels, high-end restaurants and IT services.

Thanks to growing demand and high attrition rates, bilingual call center agents enjoy nearly double the salary of their Spanish-speaking provider counterparts.

Why English for work?

The English for Work program is promoted and managed by the National Learning Service of Colombia, known in Spanish as National Learning Service (SENA)-, a public educational institution that offers a wide range of professional training programs, most aimed at job seekers.

“We found the opportunity to help bridge the employability gap through the English for Work program” – Jacqueline Rojas Solano

The program has become a “national model,” according to Jacqueline Rojas Solano, director of SENA for the Atlántico region in Colombia. Such was the success that other parts of the country began to replicate English for work to generate talent in various other industries, she said.

“That’s why, as an entity, we found the opportunity to help close the employability gap through the ‘English for Work’ program,” Rojas said in a conversation with Nearshore Americas the last week.

Jacqueline Rojas Solano, director of SENA for the Atlántico region

Candidates do not pay a fee to enroll in the program, but a basic knowledge of the English language is required. They complete 1,000 hours of learning to achieve B2 level, which is required by global service providers, such as BPOs.

“Our training process is carried out in a SENA node specialized in teaching English, which has 12 classrooms and 4 laboratories,” Rojas said.

Besides BPOs, SENA recently launched an academy in alliance with GBM, a local IT service provider, to equip software professionals with English skills.

Already, 19 interns have landed full-time jobs at GBM, according to Rojas.

Ryan H. Bowman