"The call center industry is growing very rapidly mainly because of the large, highly skilled bilingual labor pool that we have in Guatemala," says Mario Lopez, commercial manager of Transactel, an outsourcing company. "Our clients have told us that Guatemalans are great listeners, and that gives us an edge in customer services and sales."
The number of outsourcing agents in Central America—for both international and domestic services—will grow from 21,000 to 40,000 by the end of next year, according to a study by the Zagada Institute, a consulting firm that focuses on emerging markets in Latin America. The region is attractive to companies looking for call center support for their businesses, which cater to the large Hispanic population in the United States.
Help Desk Now, Esso and Telefonica have call centers in Guatemala. Representatives from PeopleSupport Inc., a Los Angeles-based business process outsourcing provider, traveled to Guatemala City early this month to assess the investment climate there.
The company already has an operation in Costa Rica, which is known for its educated population and political stability. Guatemala, by contrast, is struggling with rampant violent crime.
Costa Rica is "a much more successful country than anyplace else in Central America," says Sidney Weintraub, the William Simon Chair in Political Economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Guatemala is trying to compete with Costa Rica, where productivity is more than twice as high, by focusing on being bilingual.
"All universities in Guatemala have English as a requirement for graduation," says Carolina Castellanos, executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Guatemala. The 17,000 college students in the country who can speak English are an important talent pool for call centers.
Further training is provided by the Instituto Guatemalteco Americano, which sponsors English classes tailored to meet the needs of call centers.
"You can know English, but that doesn’t mean you can speak English," Lopez says.
For a large portion of Guatemala, however, being bilingual doesn’t mean speaking English and Spanish. It means speaking Spanish and indigenous languages. Improving the skills of Mayan descendents, most of whom are mired in poverty, may help determine how quickly Guatemala develops.
"This is important for indigenous people because they’re still focused on manufacturing and agriculture," Lopez says.
Another factor in the country’s growth may be the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which in addition to providing new markets for Guatemalan products also promises to foster the service sector and bolster the rule of law.
In the meantime, many Guatemalans are embracing call center work as a path toward prosperity.
We are agent-focused," Lopez says. "They see in short- and medium-range time the chance to grow into supervisor or manager positions."