News - Real Estate - General (March
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 &
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
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
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
English and Spanish
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.