The business process outsourcing (BPO) industry—commonly known, but somewhat mistakenly referred to, as call centers (which are only one kind of BPO)—can remain the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs for the Philippine economy. But only if all concerned take good care of that goose.
Precise figures are hard to come by, but it is generally agreed that the BPO industry employs some 650,000 Filipinos, mostly young men and women in the 20s and 30s.
Best of all, that number is growing by the day, and in a few years the one million milestone will be reached.
It is not impossible or improbable to imagine a time when BPO workers will outnumber overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), which can only be a good thing because families no longer have to be torn asunder when a father or mother or both parents are forced to work abroad in order to provide decent lives for their children.
It may be said that the success of the industry in the Philippines is a testament to our continuing love for all things made in the USA — from Hollywood movies, to Coke and Spam, to American Idol. At worst, it is a reflection of our colonial mentality; at best it is proof that the Filipino workforce is world class, particularly in the services sector.
A mere decade ago, no one could imagine how the BPO industry would transform Metro Manila’s workplace. It was unthinkable that hundreds of thousands of Filipinos would be working while most people were asleep, and be paid handsomely for their efforts.
Back then, our concept of call centers was basic. People called up consumers to sell products or services. Graveyard shift workers, meanwhile, meant security guards, emergency room doctors and nurses, and jeepney drivers looking to earn a few extra pesos, among others.
Today, there is nary a Filipino family who does not have a BPO worker, and not necessarily in call centers. There are men and women who work in backroom operations of multinational corporations. They do accounting, doctors’ medical billing, architectural drawings, translation, legal briefs, etcetera. There are technical support staff. There are legal and medical transcribers. There are even editors and writers working from home delivering content for websites and blogs.
The emergence of thousands of office-based BPO workers also resulted in the thriving of downstream industries such as 24-hour convenience stores, coffeeshops and fastfood restaurants.
The real estate industry and the automotive industry have been two of the biggest beneficiaries of the BPO explosion, what with the young workers having disposable incomes that allow them to purchase cars and condominiums.
This one sunshine industry has already done so much, yet the potential for bringing in more economic benefits to the country remains huge.
It is therefore imperative that the government extend all the support necessary in order to assure the continued growth of the BPO industry. It can start with having the Commission on Higher Education review the courses being offered today, and make sure that the country produces the kind of graduates who can fill the kind of jobs that will be created in the foreseeable future.
It is not as easy as adding units in English to the curriculum. While the basic requirement to become a call center agent is one’s facility with spoken English, it is by no means the only qualification needed.
Side-by-side with the growth of the BPO industry is the rapid expansion – explosion might be a better word — of technology-based jobs. Our colleges and universities should, therefore, adjust their course offerings to guarantee that Filipino workers are prepared for the global workplace of the future. Science and technology courses should be given priority.
As for the BPO or call center companies themselves, it has become clear that they are close to saturating Metro Manila with their admittedly welcome presence. The government should make sure that the entire country benefits from the expansion of the BPO industry by granting incentives to companies that move to the other regions, especially those with low employment rates.
Keeping the edge
The government and the private sector should also continue to work together to make sure that the Philippines’ edge over other countries is sustained. We “grabbed” the call center industry from India because of our large English-speaking population. But having become the world’s number one BPO provider, we cannot rest easy. There are certain to be other countries which want to develop their own BPO industries, and they will necessarily want to grab a share of the market from us.
The Philippines’ position of leadership will not be maintained if we rest on our laurels.
The training of high quality workers for the industry must continue, and even move at a faster pace. The telecommunications industry upon which the industry is so dependent must be as modern and efficient as possible, with rates that are the most competitive in the region.
With apologies to India, the BPO industry is ours now. It would be a shame if the Philippines were to lose this gold mine because it did not prepare for the competition. It would be tantamount to Manny Pacquiao losing his crown because he did not train hard enough for every battle that comes his way.
Let us not delude ourselves. Keeping our position of global leadership in the BPO industry will be a constant battle. But it is a battle that we are more than equipped to win.
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