Millions of tourists flock to Jamaica every year to forget about the worries of their working lives back home, but the country itself cannot afford to take it easy. With an unemployment rate stuck stubbornly in the double digits and youth unemployment at twice the national rate, Jamaica needs more and better jobs than the tourism industry alone can provide.

One answer the government thinks it has found is building on the base of the service-focused tourism industry and up-skilling into other service sectors. Jamaica as a result is making a big play for business process outsourcing (BPO) and back-office operations, as well as financial and professional services.

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As the largest English-speaking country in the Caribbean, with geographical proximity to North America and cultural links with the UK, Jamaica makes sense as an outsourced location serving Anglophone markets. At the end of 2014, Hinduja Global Solutions, a BPO company and a subsidiary of India-based Hinduja Group, opened its second delivery centre in the capital Kingston after the firm landed a contract with a North American healthcare company to provide customer care services. Hinduja Global Solutions says its will employ a further 200 people as a result and by the end of 2015 expects to double its total number of employees in the country to 600.

Telecoms quest

Jamaica is seeking to pitch for more advanced IT export services as well, and has sought to upgrade its telecoms infrastructure to compete for these projects. It boasts the highest tele density rate (the number of phone lines per 100 people) in the Latin America and Caribbean region at more than 109%. Mobile penetration exceeds the rest of the Caribbean and rivals many developed countries. There are more than 30 ICT services or BPO companies operating in Jamaica, according to Jamaica Promotions Corporation (Jampro), the government’s investment promotion agency.

The 2014 AT Kearney Global Services Location Index, which ranks countries for their attractiveness for BPO activities, places Jamaica at number 45 globally. It is the only Caribbean country to make it into the top 50.

“We have a near-shore advantage vis-à-vis the US – we are on a similar time zone to the east coast of the US – and we also have the talent pool. We have unfortunately a high rate of unemployment but a lot of tertiary graduates that are really well equipped for this industry,” says Diane Edwards, president of Jampro. “So far we have 14,000 people in this industry employed in [BPO], primarily in finance and accounting, and we think we have a very strong value proposition [for this industry].”

Copy that

US multinational Xerox appears to agree. The company opened its first facility in Jamaica in April 2000 and quickly expanded. In March 2008 it built a facility in Montego Bay and in March 2009 acquired E-Services to further expand its footprint. Xerox now has nearly 6500 employees in five facilities in Montego Bay and another three facilities in Kingston.

Jamaica plays a key role in Xerox’s global operations, according to a company spokesman, and hosts the company’s second largest non-US presence “because of its close affinity/location with the US, where we can support our clients from 6am to 11.30pm (Eastern Standard Time), and where our clients can easily view our facilities with direct flights from the US”.

“We are utilising Jamaica’s technology-savvy workforce that has access to six universities,” adds the spokesman. While most employees work in one of Xerox’s customer care/call centres, many also work in such functions as finance and accounting; human resource processing; IT procurement; software development; and transaction processing.

Work ethic

Meanwhile, Vistaprint, a Belgium-based online supplier of marketing products and services, has set up base in Montego Bay, where it employs some 800 people and handles 4.5 million customer contacts a year. General manager Serena Godfrey, a Canadian expatriate, says the work ethic of the local population defies Jamaica’s holiday-happy image.

“I think a lot of people have this perception, because it is a holiday destination, that everybody here is walking around having cocktails and is laid back,” she says. “It is actually not the case. Employees here are always on time, they’re dedicated, they’re constantly wanting to get their skills sets [up to] higher levels. They're looking for advancement and growth within an organisation, and in many places in Jamaica people work six to seven days a week.”

Valerie Blandin, project manager at DHL Jamaica, a subsidiary of Germany-based Deutsche Post, was quoted in a company announcement about the decision to locate a $30m call centre in Jamaica. “We had the option to set up in another country, but we chose Jamaica because of the skilled workforce, good education, potential of the country... and work ethic,” she said.

Such endorsements are music to the ears of Jampro’s Ms Edwards, who has to battle against others’ misperceptions in order to market Jamaica for non-tourism investment. “In FDI, one of the big challenges for us is that we’re so successful in tourism that people think we don’t really work,” she says. “People don’t realise that there’s really a very strong work ethic in Jamaica, and behind the tourism face that people see there’s actually a lot of production. We have a huge pool of talent here and a very well-trained workforce. So, we sell the attributes of our talent pool.”

A few years ago, Jampro was given a mandate to double the size of Jamaica’s BPO sector by 2016. It is chipping away at this goal but work continues – there is little time to rest in ensuring that Jamaica's BPO boom can keep ahead of the unemployment curve.