Jamaica's In

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Jamaica, known throughout the world for its reggae, rum, and Rastafarianism, now has a new claim to fame as the Caribbean's top choice for investors looking to establish nearshore call center operations. The island's government has made vigorous efforts to promote it as a sensible, low-cost outsourcing alternative to Asia. Christopher McNair, an IT adviser at the government investment promotion agency Jampro, says 19 companies now operate call centers in Jamaica. The largest are ACS, in the Montego Bay Free Zone; West, in Kingston; and e-Services Group International (e-SGI) at both locations. Jamaica, at last count, had an estimated 8,000 seats and 15,000 call center agents. In May 2006 e-SGI, whose 1,500 workers annually process more than 30 million transactions for a variety of U.S. and foreign clients, announced it had landed a contract to provide customer care and reservations services for Delta Air Lines. The megadeal, whose value wasn't disclosed, is expected to double the company's Jamaica workforce to 3,000 and fuel an expansion to St. Lucia. "We selected e-SGI based on its proven ability to deliver high-quality customer service at a significant cost savings, as well as its proximity to the United States," says Steve Scheper, vice president of reservations at Delta. Patrick Casserly, who founded e-SGI in 2002 with back-office processing for one client and a staff of 35, says his company grew 55 percent in the first three years. He expects to end 2006 with a 50 percent jump in revenue from the year before. "We anticipate that with the success of the [Delta] program, our partnership will redefine the outsource sector in Jamaica, and we are putting all resources in place to ensure a successful agreement." Philip Cohen, an adviser to the American Teleservices Association, says GE and American Express were among the first multinationals to relocate their back-office operations to India, though things really began picking up in 1999, when an analyst report predicted India would have 300,000 call center jobs by 2008. "India is okay if what you're looking for are large numbers of English-speaking agents. But if you're looking for smaller numbers, there's really no reason why you should go to India when you have countries like the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Costa Rica, and Panama." Tour and holiday company Apple Vacations has 110 employees in Montego Bay, and Unique Vacations--which handles reservations for the Sandals resort chain--recently moved its call center operation from Florida to Jamaica. "Our biggest advantage is proximity," McNair says. "People are no longer looking to travel two days to get to Mumbai or Bangalore. We're just 90 minutes by air from the U.S. coastline." McNair says Jamaican wages are one-third that of the U.S.--about $2.75 per hour compared to the $8 an hour earned by the average U.S. call center employee. He says the industry generates more than $100 million in revenue annually for Jamaica. "Right now, we are in the process of adding 200,000 square feet to the Montego Bay Free Zone, giving us more space to attract investors in the call center industry." David Hall, CEO of mobile communications company Digicel, says his company runs its own call center with over 500 employees. These workers provide after-hours support for Digicel's various wireless operations throughout the Caribbean. Hall credits the end of the century-old Cable & Wireless monopoly and the advent of competition for the dramatic growth of call center operations throughout Jamaica. "Up until six months ago we only had one pipe coming out of Jamaica, but thanks to competition, we now have a second fiber-optic cable linking Florida with Jamaica--and we have a third one coming in the next 15 months." But Jamaica may soon be eclipsed by the much larger Dominican Republic, home to tens of thousands of people who speak fluent English in addition to their native Spanish. At present, no fewer than 12,000 Dominicans are working at 35 call center companies, many of them located in the recently expanded Santo Domingo Cyberpark located five minutes down the road from the capital city's international airport. Yet Jamaica is still ahead of the Dominican Republic in terms of call center jobs, and investment continues to flow into the island despite limited tax and other incentives by the government. "Incentives are an issue for us," says Carole Beckford, a Jampro investment official. "We're not so open to offering incentives that quickly. We're getting better, though." Apparently so, because companies seem to agree with Jampro's new slogan: "Jamaica Means Business." Accent Marketing Services officially opened its first wholly owned non-U.S. call center, in New Kingston, in November. The center provides outsourced customer-care support to more than 2.5 million customers in Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, and Turks & Caicos. Accent has already hired and trained 280 agents, support staff, and managers. The company has also leased 19,000 square feet of space in what was previously the near-shore contact center for a U.S. telecom firm. After taking ownership of the center in July 2006, Accent enhanced its technology infrastructure by installing new servers, telephony equipment, VoIP, and additional T-1 lines. "Jamaica has a good infrastructure, good educational levels, and high unemployment, so you can get a lot of people who are qualified and waiting for work," says Ryan Carey, general manager of Accent Marketing Jamaica. Carey, who lived in the Dominican Republic for several years before moving to Jamaica, says turnover is very low and morale is high. In addition, absenteeism is only 4 to 5 percent, mainly because the working conditions at Accent are pleasant. "It's a very nice building, and we have a management team that's very responsive to employees' requests." Another advantage of Jamaica, Carey says, is the relatively short flight, "so it doesn't kill executives to come here, and they can speak English." Indeed, while critics claim call center operations lure jobs away from American shores, in poor countries like the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Nicaragua, they often mean the difference between poverty and prosperity. "The United States still has the largest population of agent positions in the world," McNair says. Besides, he adds, if transferring jobs to the Caribbean helps a company remain in business and stay competitive, then it's a no-brainer. "According to the experts, for every dollar the U.S. actually outsources [in call center jobs], it gets $1.50 back," he says. "So from my point of view, the United States benefits."
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