IN the coming years, call centers andrelated businesses are expected to generate6,000 new jobs in Costa Rica; and theNational Training Institute (INA) is takingsteps to ensure at least some will fall intothe hands of those who need them most.Officials from the state-funded instituteare planning to offer free, intensiveEnglish classes starting next month aimedspecifically at serving the growing industryof customer-service call centers herebeing outsourced by businesses in theUnited States.“In the United States, the demand inthis sector has grown gigantic,” said EdnaCamacho, general director of the CostaRican Investment Board (CINDE), whichis partnering with INA and businesses inthe new program.HUMAN resources are more importantthan anything else in meeting thisdemand over the long term, added AlfredoRibeiro, human resources manager forHewlett Packard in Costa Rica, at theannouncement of the new courses earlierthis month.In five years, the industry here hasgrown to 6,000 jobs in 34 companies,including 1,300 jobs in Procter & Gamble,which calls Costa Rica home to itsaccounting and payroll services for theAmericas, and 1,400 jobs in Sykes LatinAmerica, which handles tech-support andconsumer-product services for 16 multinationalcompanies (TT, Oct. 1, 2004).In the next four years, the UnitedStates will demand 500,000 such jobs outsidethe United States, Camacho said.THE English program aims to attractthese jobs by providing qualified labor.While the requirements are few – a highschool diploma and daytime availability –they limit the potential student population.The nine-month course can be an alternativefor recent high-school graduateswho are financially unable to attend college,INA’s Virgina Garita told The TicoTimes. The classes are free and ¢50 million($109,000) is available for food andtransportation scholarships.But because students must be availablefor the six-hour a day, daytime classes, theprogram is limited primarily to recentgraduates who do not have full-time dayjobs or families.The high-school graduation requirementis also limiting, as the graduation ratehas remained at about one-third since the1980s, according to UCR economists (TT,Dec. 3, 2004).Project coordinators set the requirementbecause call centers often hire onlythose with a high-school diploma or highereducation level, according to INAspokesman Sergio Castro. Other INAclasses offer English to non-graduates, headded.“If we open the program to studentswho have not passed the graduation test,they are not going to get hired,” he said.HOWEVER, CINDE service sectormanager Vanessa Gibson said companiesare willing to hire non-graduates.“The most important thing is the qualityof (potential employees’) English,” shesaid.The program is a pilot project that willbe evaluated and could in the future beopened to non-graduates, she added.INA offers job placement and as sectordemand grows, INA executive presidentRóger Carvajal said he is confident studentswill have little trouble finding work.Because most call centers offer 24-hour services, employees may have thetime and financial resources to attend university,he said. The English courses mayalso be good for credit in Costa Rica’s publictechnical schools and universities.Entry-level pay in call centers averagesbetween $500-$550 a month, full-time,Gibson said. In comparison, the averagemonthly income of a household in the poorestfifth of the population is approximately$150, while the average income of a householdin the richest fifth is $1,450, accordingto the Household Survey of the NationalStatistics and Census Institute (INEC).THE English courses are designedspecifically to meet the language needs ofthe call-center sector, and include lessonsin conversation, reading, composition andpronunciation, with more than half of lesson-time dedicated to conversation.Students also must complete two 35-hoursupervised internships in call centers.According to the United Nations 2004World Investment Report, for Costa Ricato maintain its position as one of LatinAmerica’s top per-capita recipients ofdirect foreign investment, one of its mainpriorities must be increasing its supply ofEnglish-speaking workers.Five years ago, five in 10 people whoapplied for a job that required English-speakingskills met the hiring criteria.Today only three in 10 applicants fit thebill. The first companies to arrive took thecream of the crop, according to TomásGilmore, one of CINDE’s directors (TT,Oct. 1, 2004). Newer arrivals have had aharder time.Costa Rica is therefore at a comparabledisadvantage with outsourcing powerhouseIndia, where English is widely spoken,and El Salvador, which is home tothousands of English-speaking expatriates,Gilmore said.SOME in the business sector worrythe new Central Bank policy to slow inflationto 10% from 13% last year (TT, Jan.21) will result in the generation of few jobsand increase poverty.Economists have cited the government’sfailure to stimulate growth in thejob market as one reason for the country’spoverty rate – which has hovered around20% for 10 years despite reduction efforts.The number of new jobs created fromJuly 2003 to July 2004 grew by only11,000, less than half of the annual averageof 25,000 jobs created in years past.Many jobs in the most dynamic economicsectors require English, a skill thatmany of the country’s poorest lack,according to Jorge Vargas, coordinator ofgeneral research for the 10th State of theNation Report. Unemployed therefore turnto the informal sector, working in thestreet, he said.UNDER the new INA English program,classes are being offered in variousINA centers, primarily in the CentralValley, including downtown San José,Alajuela, Grecia, Heredia and Naranjo.The program could be extendedthroughout the country as demandrequires, Carvajal said.“Right now we are beginning in theCentral Valley… We are working wherethere is a demand. We will extend the programto other places if there is investmentthere,” he said.The program will begin Feb. 9 with 10groups of 25 students. Garita said shehopes another round of classes can bestarted around April.Registration for the classes will be heldFeb. 1-2, 8 a.m., in the auditorium of INALa Uruca, in northwestern San José, acrossfrom the National Amusement Park.For more information, call 222-7210,221-8898 or 451-0433, ext. 207 or 208.
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