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Jamaica News - Real Estate - General (March 13, 2005)
Caribbean Call Centers Booming
Technion recently chose to open a call center on the middle-income island of Barbados, as it spreads its call centers beyond the United States, Canada, the Philippines and Argentina. "We looked at India as well but wanted to stay in areas more culturally aligned," said Bob Guarnieri, director of business development.

University graduate Samantha Anderson spends her days in the tropical capital of Kingston, Jamaica, headset on, fingers on the computer keyboard, answering phone calls for telecom giant Cable & Wireless.

She's part of a growing legion of call-center agents in the Caribbean, whose numbers have more than doubled to 25,000 over the past two years and likely will double again by the end of 2006, according to a report from Miami-based researcher Zagada Markets.

The call-center business is booming in the Caribbean, as telecom deregulation in the islands slashes costs and U.S. companies spread their growing overseas call-center business to lower-cost sites "near-shore."

Proximity means U.S. managers can easily visit and troubleshoot. Plus, it means call-center agents tend to be more familiar with U.S. culture than agents in more distant lands such as India, said Zagada Chief Executive Philip Dickenson Peters.

Caribbean nations are pursuing the call-center business, anxious to create jobs and nurture clean industry that complements their vital tourism industry. Many islands offer tax breaks, training programs and other lures. Jamaica is even retrofitting former apparel factories to house call centers.

So far, Jamaica has the most call-center agents in the Caribbean. Zagada estimates the English-speaking nation had 8,000 agents at the end of 2004, most handling calls for U.S. clients. Some growth has come from collection-type work, with agents informing U.S. residents that their mortgage or credit card payment is late.

Jamaica's government is specifically targeting Fortune 500 clients that had problems with call centers in India, both because of the difficulties of long-distance management and cultural differences. Recruiters proudly note that Jamaicans understand, for example, that Americans mean zero when they say "O" in a phone number -- an issue with some agents in India.

"We've been doing tourism for 50 years, so we know how to deal with foreigners, especially Americans," said Chris McNair, who oversees call centers for Jamaica's investment promotion agency Jampro.

English and Spanish
Within Jamaica, most call-center work so far has been concentrated in the north coast Montego Bay area in "free zones" that offer income tax breaks and other incentives.

But business is expanding into the capital. Cable & Wireless, for instance, handles the bulk of calls in Kingston for its clients in Jamaica and the British territories of Cayman Islands, Turks & Caicos Islands and Bermuda. Costs are lower in Jamaica than in those smaller British islands, and qualified labor is more readily available in the nation of 2.7 million people, with several universities.

Call-center jobs, with take-home pay often in the $500- to $700-a-month range, are considered decent employment in Jamaica, where joblessness long has been stuck around 15 percent. Samantha Anderson seized the opportunity as an agent three years ago after earning her marketing degree at U Tech in Kingston.

"I need exposure in customer service to grow and go forward, and I hope this will lead later to a position in sales and marketing with Cable & Wireless," said the neatly dressed 24-year-old, her hair pulled back tight.

Close behind Jamaica in the number of agents is the Dominican Republic, which has been tapping the growing U.S. Hispanic market.

Caribbean Deregulation
Verizon International Teleservices, an affiliate of New York-based Verizon, employed about 4,000 people in the Dominican Republic last year, handling calls and other related services for domestic and overseas clients. It has forecast at least 10 percent growth in Dominican jobs this year, even as it shifts some work in English to a center in Kingston.

Plantation-based Precision Response Corp. also opened a Dominican center last year, with plans to expand to 600 agents there, complementing its services in the United States, Philippines, Ireland and other nations.

Smaller Caribbean nations are getting active, too. In Guyana, telephone company Atlantic Tele Network has started an affiliate, Atlantic Tele Center, which employs about 80 agents in Georgetown. So far, it handles largely outbound telemarketing calls for overseas clients such as AT&T and MCI.

"We'd like to do inbound. That's where the money is," said Neil Prior, ATN's chief executive.

Call centers also are getting a boost from telecom deregulation across the Caribbean, which is slicing costs.

In Jamaica, a pioneer in deregulation, for example, a high-speed T1 line that carries data offshore that used to cost about $19,000 a month now runs about $10,000 -- a big savings since telecommunications and wages are the two biggest costs for call-center operations, said Zagada Markets' Peters.

The Downside
Still, not all is sunny for call centers in the Caribbean.

While total costs are far lower than the United States, the tally for labor, telecommunications, computers and other outlays often tops call-center costs elsewhere.

Zagada estimates costs at about $25 to $30 per agent per hour to operate a call center in the United States, but just $9 to $11 in India and $12 to $13 in Mexico or the Philippines. Outlays are higher in Jamaica and other English-speaking Caribbean islands: roughly $14 to $18 per agent per hour.

Furthermore, the small nations of the Caribbean lack big labor pools to attract the megacenters common in India and planned for China, with more than 1 billion residents each.

"I don't think we can handle too many 1,000-seat centers," concedes Jampro's McNair. "We can't compete with China or India on that level."

Yet cost and size are not everything, as Tamarac-based Technion Communications Corp. proves.

Technion recently chose to open a call center on the middle-income island of Barbados (population: 275,000), as it spreads its call centers beyond the United States, Canada, the Philippines and Argentina.

"We looked at India as well but wanted to stay in areas more culturally aligned," said Bob Guarnieri, director of business development. "And it's a lot easier for someone to jump on a plane and go a few hours to the Caribbean than go halfway around the world."

Technion eyed other Caribbean islands but selected Barbados partly because of its location (which is usually outside the hurricane belt), lower crime rates and strong government support for call centers. The company expects to employ 350 agents in Barbados by midyear, with 35 to 40 percent savings compared with U.S. rates, Guarnieri said.

As the call-center industry booms worldwide, researcher Zagada predicts far more companies will follow Technion into the islands to spread their risks.  It estimates the economic impact of call centers on the Caribbean will double to $4 billion by the end of 2006.

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