By David L. Llorito, Louise M. Francisco and Debbie J. Pepito
Research Staff /BusinessMirror, 6 February 2007
For years Xandy, a former human resource officer for a publishing firm, thought she could tolerate the whimsical policies put upon by the bosses. But when top management started bullying her into firing an employee whose only fault was having been born in the Year of the Tiger, she knew it was time to go.
That’s why she’s so happy for being given the option of joining the medical transcription field, one of the fastest-growing business process outsourcing (BPO) sectors in the country in the last five years.
“I was so frustrated. For 15 years, I felt I was like a fish out of water,” Xandy shares. “Now, I work at my own pace provided that I meet all deadlines set by the clients. I work at home. I do not have to commute to and from work daily. No traffic, less pollution, less stress. The best part: there’s no boss breathing down my neck every minute.”
But there’s a trade-off. She says she hasn’t been to the Mall of Asia, St. Francis Square, Market! Market!, Podium and other interesting places where her friends hang out. “Talk about zero social life,” she says. “I work during Christmas and New Year. I guess I have sacrificed a lot but I have no regrets.”
Since shifting careers from human resources to medical transcription she felt her quality of life has vastly improved. She gets between P70,000 and P100,000 a month, significantly higher than what she was getting working as human-resource practitioner. She also has more time to attend to her growing number of pet dogs.
Xandy is one of the growing number of career shifters who, frustrated in their previous work, are finding new careers in the BPO business. Called cyberservices by government planners, this industry covers a wide range of activities such as call centers, medical transcription, litigation support, back-office operation or shared services, engineering design, software development and animation. According to recent government data, cyberservices now employ about 250,000 and generates more than $3 billion in service export revenues.
Dada Desembrano, operations manager of Phibi.com, a call-center startup with 65 employees, says about 20 percent of her employees are career shifters. “We have employees who were former nurses, sales workers, physical therapists, English teachers and even dentists,” she says.
A career shifter herself, Desembrano used to manage a Subway franchise in Kuwait. But she got homesick and decided to go home in 2000. Not even the high pay (around P70,000 net) and other perks could persuade her to continue her stint as overseas Filipino worker (OFW). “There’s really no place like home,” she swears.
Back home, she immediately took a job as long-distance operator with the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. with a salary of P15,000 a month. After discovering that call-center agents in general receive higher pay and enjoy fast career mobility, she resigned to become a call-center agent. In 2003 she was promoted to supervisor with a P25,000 net pay. Three years later, she rose up the ranks again to become operations manager, getting at least P60,000 basic pay. And in September 2006, she and her friends formed their own company. By the end of 2007, she expects to employ 250 workers.
Despite the increasing scarcity of call-center agents and BPO workers, Desembrano is not worried. “Contrary to popular belief, I actually don’t have problems recruiting staff. This is because these days, there is a growing perception that the career path in the outsourcing industry is quite good. Besides, there would always be career shifters who are lured by better career prospects,” she explains.
Grace Zata, managing director of the Corporate Executive Search Inc., a human-resource outfit, agrees, citing a friend, who used to be an account manager in a multinational advertising agency but quit when she got married and had six children. When she decided to resume her career, she could not find any job in advertising anymore.
“I think call centers provide jobs for that particular segment who are articulate in English but for some reason [such as age, lack of college degree and/or experience, and even sexual orientation] cannot find jobs,” Zata says.
She also mentions her cousin, who is almost 50 and “a bum for many years.” He did not finish college and used to work as a DJ in a radio station. “He got work as an agent and after one year has been promoted to team leader. The call centers have opened the door for career shifters as well as some people who previously could not find jobs,” Zata says.
Top new employer
By 2010, the industry expects the total number of BPO workers to reach more than a million with service export revenues of more than $12 billion. So far, this projection seems to be holding quite well. Since June 2006, the BusinessMirror research staff has been monitoring job advertisements in the three major newspapers—Manila Bulletin, Philippine Daily Inquirer and Philippine Star—and three online jobsites—www.jobstreet.com, www.jobsdb.com.ph and www.bestjobs.ph—and found out that about 27 percent of the 199,000 job advertisements from June to December 2006 were for cyberservices.
In terms of ranking, cyberservices occupy the top spot, followed by construction and engineering; manufacturing; wholesale and retail; hotels, resorts and restaurants; media and entertainment; transportation, storage and communication; financial intermediation; health and social work; and advertising and promotions. Consistently, job ads from the cyberservices sector have been growing at double-digit rates from its base in June in the last five months, an indication of the growth in job creation in the sector.
Every year, the country’s colleges and universities produce about 400,000 graduates. For the industry to grow into a million workers by 2010, the industry needs to recruit an average of 200,000 additional workers each year, a figure some industry experts say is probably not achievable. Even if the industry achieves half that target, recruiting about 100,000 new workers each year for the industry would mean that a significant number will have to come from career shifters.
At present, many BPO companies don’t have specific programs to attract career shifters. They simply take them as they come.
“Practically all [our agents] are fresh-graduate recruits as our strategy has always been to backfill at the entry level with new graduates,” said Chris Duncan-Webb, president of the AIG Business Processing Services Inc. “We prefer fresh graduates. For us there is really no great advantage in hiring career shifters. It is much easier to assimilate new graduates into our culture than import from other companies with a different culture.”
He adds: “We shall continue our policy of recruiting new graduates although occasionally we will recruit career shifters if they fit our profile. I am not sure if the number of career shifters applying will increase but I think probably so because BPO is a new and exciting industry.”
So far, the industry doesn’t have statistics on the number of career shifters in outsourcing. But based on anecdotal evidence and interviews, there appears to be a growing number of people who are attracted by its dynamism, for varying reasons.
For Debbie who has just left journalism for a managerial post at a call center, the reason appears to be economic. She needs the money to help pay for her sister’s studies. “At this moment, the decision is not really about the pursuit of happiness. Between journalism and this call-center job that pays a lot higher, the choice is clear. It’s the most logical thing to do,” she explains.
For Bowden, a team manager for a back-office operations firm, his decision to leave teaching is about proving himself even though it would mean getting reduced pay. “I already knew that I was good at teaching. I wanted to see if I could make it in a different field. I like this job; it’s dynamic. I learn new things every day,” he says.
For former banking employee Cherry Angela Solis, who is now a training officer at Ambergris Solutions, another call center and financial services firm, the work environment is what really matters.
“The work environment is very progressive,” she says. “Business practices and technology from abroad are implemented here. The organizational structure is rather flat, which gives plenty of opportunities to move up. Moreover, an employee doesn’t need to wait for an official appointment to get promoted. He/she can apply for the post aspired for. Many of the managers are young, and have equally progressive/fresh management style. They encourage direct interactions with subordinates. The company’s work ethic for managers requires them to provide support to their subordinates. Also, the work environment is fun and informal, while remaining professional in terms of delivering results.”
According to Tet Bachmann who heads a Filipino-owned call-center business in Pasig, hiring career shifters, provided they are given proper training, could have distinct advantages.
“My team leader is a career shifter [from sales and marketing in real estate]. We had one first-time working mom. I don’t think we hired anyone who was a fresh graduate. Three came from food/service industry,” Bachmann says. “One of our agents who did well for one campaign used to be a food server at McDonald’s. I think that people with prior experience in sales or customer service would be good hires for a call center.”
Effect on other firms
Because shifting to a BPO career seems to be a new trend, human-resource experts can’t seem to agree on whether or not it will accelerate in the next few years or on how will it impact the corporate economy.
On one hand, Zata thinks this trend will probably have a limited effect.
“I would think that people who have reasonably good jobs will not want to become agents,” says Zata. “If they are articulate and confident, normally they have good prospects and will probably not shift. But those who move industry [or shift] are those with technical skills for specialized accounts and are paid very well. They are not really career shifters though, in the strict sense of the word.”
Reyes of Optimus, on the other hand, believes the impact will probably be broad-based and will hit small and medium enterprises the hardest.
“I think career shifters to the call centers and BPO industries would come from small- and medium-scale businesses who cannot afford to pay high wages and provide attractive benefits packages like the big companies,” says Reyes. “If this trend accelerates, and it may, if the number of fresh graduates qualified for call centers/ BPOs diminish, it will make things more difficult for the SMEs.”
For Reyes, what is certain is that human-resource managers will now be challenged to put up long-term programs that will encourage the traditional values of company loyalty, sense of belongingness, team spirit, sense of mission and commitment to what the company stands for.
“Some companies, though, don’t mind having a high turnover; this does keep the manpower costs low since the longer an employee stays, the higher will be the costs of keeping him/ her,” says Reyes.
How this trend unfolds in the next few years, no one knows. Nevertheless, the Commission on Information and Communications Technology (CICT) seems to be betting on career shifters to meet the country’s job targets in the cyberservices industry. In back-office operations or shared services, for instance, CICT estimates that more than 40,000 career shifters are going to join the cyberservices industry from 2006 until 2010. CICT also expects career shifters to make up 30 percent of new employees in the medical transcription business from 2006 to 2010.
It’s probably a low estimate considering that based on the latest labor force survey, the country’s underemployment rate stands at 20 percent. That translates to more than six million people who are underpaid, disgruntled, and thus are ripe recruits for BPO work.
“There are a lot of career shifters coming from P&G, Avon and the like. That will continue as we offer very high [salary] packages,” says Mitch Locsin, executive director of Business Processing Association of the Philippines.