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Beyond English: the key skills BPOs need

MANILA, Philippines - Out of every 100 applicants to local outsourcing companies, 95 are turned away, according to the Business Processing Association of the Philippines (BPAP)

It's not because of a lack of demand, it's that companies can't find the right workers. In fact, the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry needs more workers, explains BPAP President and CEO Benedict C. Hernandez at a forum on October 5.

"The main reason that is actually going to slow down our growth is talent," said Hernandez.

There are 4 basic skills most outsourcing companies are looking for and screen applicants for:

Other areas that are measured by BPAP's official screening test - known as the Global Competitiveness Assessmnet Tool (GCAT) - are overall behavior, learning orientation, courtesy, empathy and reliability.

Overall, Hernandez said communications skills are crucial. After all, the country prides itself on being the call center capital of the world.

"Everyone is saying we want people who can speak…. We can invest training on the technical skills but its the basic core competences that are missing. And we can't teach core competences anymore, it's a bit too late."

'Average' won't do

The sector's problems finding the right workers may have its roots in the Philippine school system.

Hernandez said the GCAT is very successful at picking out the best employees. He explains that they sampled the test on 2,500 current BPO workers to see if it could find the best employees. "We wanted to see if [it] could determine top and lower performers and it did."

So BPAP decided to see how Filipino college students measured up. The test was administered to 19,700 students from 72 colleges in Metro Manila and across the country.

The results were similar across all the tested categories. Only a handful met the standards for high performers, consistent with the low 5% pass rate of the industry, explained Hernandez.

The findings for learning ability are shown below. "Green bar is high performers and I need somebody at least in the lower end of that band," said Hernandez.

UNDER PAR. Photo taken at the National Competitiveness Council's u0022Addressing Labor-Market Mismatch for Global Competitivenessu0022 event on October 5, 2012.

UNDER PAR. Photo taken at the National Competitiveness Council's u0022Addressing Labor-Market Mismatch for Global Competitivenessu0022 event on October 5, 2012.

Not many of the college students measured up.

"It is not really the experience but the qualifications that our job seekers don't match," explained Arthur Luis P. Florentin, the President of the People Management Assocation of the Philippines (PMAP).

A bigger problem

Florentin said the problem is not just in the BPO sector but in many major sectors of the Philippine economy.

He pointed to a 2010 study PMAP conducted with 607 businesses across 28 different industries. Looking at vacant positions, they found that 87% required only 2 years or less of experience, while 50% didn't require any at all.

"There is really no experience needed for many of the vacancies," said Florentin.

The '2010 PMAP Manpower - Critical Skills Survey' found that 65% of vacancies were for entry level jobs. The main culprit was that students were not as skilled or educated as they needed to be.

Florentin said 88% of the overall vacancies required a college level applicant. The hardest jobs to fill were those in IT, sales and finance -- almost all of which require a high level of education.

49% of the overall jobs remained unfilled simply because a competent candidate could not be found, he said.

The study also found that until 2013 to 2015 the most important skill areas for workers would be:

The most important sills are English proficiency, oral communication skills, critical thinking and problem solving, said Florentin. "This is across industries," he added. Hernandez agreed that for BPOs those skill-sets are in high demand.

Will K-12 help?

Government is hoping that its new K-12 program, which added 2 additional years of education to the curriculum this year, will help hone students' basic skills.

"The intention is to really make our graduates more employable so that if they already choose to work (after graduating as a) senior in high school they have a diploma that they can use to land into a job or trade related (work)," said Maria Criselda R. Sy, a Director at the Bureau of Local Employment in the Department of Labor and Employment.

She said it is key to work with industry partners, including those in outsourcing, to ensure that students learn industry appropriate skills.

But some critics of the new school program say it doesn't address existing problems in the education system, like the lack of classrooms and a curriculum that does not focus enough on critical thinking.

"Perhaps it might not be the additional 1 to 2 years but our approach to education," said Florentin.

BPAP is taking matters into its own hands and pouring an unprecedented P668 million into a 2012 talent development program that is expected to help 106,157 students directly and another 51,690 students indirectly.

He hopes the trainings will help those who are on the cusp of qualifying for BPO work. "At least 70% become employable if you invest in them," he explained.

"If we're successful with our 70% recruiting grade, that's about 74,000 more talent supply in addition to the natural talent supply," said Hernandez.

He said the industry needs to hire 200,000 new recruits a year and is willing to invest in them to keep the BPO sector growing.

Outsourcing contributes about 9% of the Philippines gross domestic product and revenues are seen to hit $25 billion by 2016.

"Our issue is of magnitude. We can't do the small programs because it won't be enough to solve our problem. If we don't solve that problem, that US$25 billion opportunity will be in jeopardy," warned Hernandez. - Rappler.com