When people have problems understanding their computers, they often pick up a phone and call the computer maker's help desk. Increasingly, that help desk may be in the Philippines, a growing player in the outsourcing market. More companies from high cost labor markets are shifting call center jobs to the Philippines.
In the Philippines the outsourcing business has exploded. Just five years ago it accounted for only a few thousand jobs, but by the end of this year, about 266,000 people are expected to be working in the sector.
Two thirds of those jobs will be in call centers - taking calls from customers needing technical help. The rest are in companies handling such work as medical and legal transcription, record management, animation and accounting.
And the growth is just beginning. According to the Business Processing Association in the Philippines, the industry is expected to hit nearly one-point-one million jobs in four years. The English language has a lot to do with that. The Philippines, a former American colony, is heavily English-speaking, making it a natural choice for serving the U.S. market.
Mitch Locsin is executive director of the association, and says that 90 percent of the business-process outsourcing done in the Philippines is for the United States.
"We are very U.S.-centric," he says. "We have the same legal system, we have the same general accepted accounting principles as the U.S., we have a very good neutral accent. And of course it's because the strong affinity we have with the U.S."
One example of a U.S. business using the Philippines is computer giant Dell. By mid-year it employed about 700 people at a customer service call center, handling questions on how to fix problems with computers. Dell hopes to double that to 1400 workers by February. Mike Garrison manages Dell's Philippine business.
"We're finding great talent in the Philippines," he says. "We look for three basic things. One is communication skills, the second is customer service skills, and the third is problem solving skills. These are fundamentally problem solving jobs where people are getting to the root of an issue. And on all three of those counts we're finding great talent here in the Philippines."
Among other companies that have customer service call centers in the Philippines are AOL, Sony and JVC. Customer satisfaction surveys and reservations for airlines are also handled in the Philippines.
Craig Rodger, the sales director of Customer Interactive Solutions for Dimension Data, based in South Africa, recently took part in a business conference on call centers in Manila. He says that the quality of service offered by call centers here and worldwide has improved greatly over the past few years, with both companies and their customers increasingly satisfied.
"If you had asked the question five years ago, all the offshore destinations would have taken an absolute pasting and hammering," he notes. "And as organizations have learned to work better and those destinations have matured, satisfaction has improved dramatically, significantly. In many cases a lot of contracts awarded to destinations like the Philippines are as good as what they are achieving in satisfaction scores inside the U.S."
Industry officials say call center jobs are popular with young people in the Philippines because they pay relatively well. A starting call center worker gets about 15 thousand pesos a month, or $300. Equivalent start-up jobs in industries such banking or hospitality are about half that.
The industry is seen as key to the Philippine government's efforts to cut unemployment and boost the economy. For years, the government has encouraged workers to leave the country to work overseas as either unskilled laborers or as educated workers in fields such as nursing, engineering and aviation mechanics. Often, a teacher in the Philippines can double her salary by moving to Hong Kong to work as maid, earning about $475 a month.
Unlike many Asian countries, the Philippines has a relatively high unemployment rate - eight percent - and a high birth rate. Nearly half the population of 80 million is under the age of 21. Call centers and other outsourced office jobs thus have great appeal for communities in desperate need of jobs for young adults.
But one problem in the Philippines is getting enough qualified workers who speak good English. Although most Filipinos speak some English, many have heavy accents, or they have trouble understanding the accents of English speakers from other countries.
As recently as one year ago call centers hired only five out of every 100 applicants. But industry officials say that, thanks to government funded English proficiency courses, now as many as 15 applicants out of 100 are hired. Businessmen say many of those passed over before were just slightly under the qualification margin and 100 hours of intense English training can bring them up to speed.