The Philippines: BPO’s rising potential

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Rising revenues and job creation, backed by new investments, are currently highlighting the surging growth in the Philippines’ business process outsourcing (BPO) segment.

On March 20, the World Bank revealed in its Philippines quarterly update that the BPO industry is expected to create 100,000 jobs in 2012 alone. The number of employees in the sector had already risen to 610,000 in 2011 from just 100,000 in 2004.

US bank Wells Fargo further boosted confidence in the BPO industry the same month by revealing that it had chosen the country for a $2bn BPO operations centre. Wells Fargo Philippines Solutions will employ some 126,000 Filipinos and set up operations in Manila’s 14-ha McKinley Hill Cyberpark, which already hosts centres for firms including Accenture, Hewlett-Packard and Thomson Reuters.

According to Ernesto Herrera, a former senator, the entry of the US’s second-largest bank “reinforces the Philippines’ reputation as an exceptional global centre for labour-intensive and information technology-enabled outsourcing services”.

Herrera told local media recently that in 2011 the industry saw $11bn in revenues and that the Business Processing Association of the Philippines (BPAP) expects this figure to jump 18% to $13bn this year. Industry profits have risen sharply from $3bn in 2008, with the World Bank predicting they will hit $50bn by 2020.

Government officials are aware, however, that to ensure this continued growth, the BPO segment will need to diversify away from voice-only services, such as call centres, into current growth markets, such as research and analytics for the legal, health care and financial industries.

While call centres tap into the country’s English-language skills, research company Everest Group estimates that non-voice services will account for 90% of the global BPO market, which is expected to be worth $220bn-$280bn, in 2012. In the Philippines, non-voice business in 2011 accounted for just over one-fifth of total BPO revenues, despite employing one-third of the workforce, according to a Reuters report in March.

In this regard, progress towards broader BPO development can be seen in the recent entrance of several foreign banks into the market. Gregory Domingo, the Philippines’ trade secretary, told local press at the annual Philippine Economic Briefing in March that up to five foreign banks are looking to the Philippines for non-voice, back-office operations.

“The government recognises that investments in non-voice are more sustainable, because these operations are very difficult to pull out,” said Domingo, adding that while accounts handled by call centres are mostly based on short-lived marketing campaigns, outsourced non-voice operations are usually for technical tasks that are indispensable to the primary activities and output of a company.

The drive for non-voice services also addresses two concerns hanging over the BPO sector’s future in the Philippines: local education levels and creeping “protectionism” in the West.

In December 2011, a bill was tabled in the US House of Representatives that sought to make companies that move call centre operations abroad ineligible for all federal grants for the next five years. Following this move, Indian software industry body Nasscom dubbed the bill “protectionist”. The bill would also require call-centre staff to disclose their location to US consumers, who would be given the right to be routed to a US-based call centre upon request.

There are also concerns that local graduates lack the skills to compete globally in the new market, with Manila estimating that only 5-8% of university graduates are ready for employment in the BPO recruitment market upon completing their studies. “The challenge is to be able to supply the human resources to support the industry, both from the entry level to middle managers and executives,” said Domingo.

Recognising this shortfall, last month the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) called for schools, universities and technical vocational institutions to offer more BPO courses, particularly for non-voice skills. Joel Villanueva, the director-general of TESDA, said key areas of focus will be financial accounting, engineering and design, health-related services and creative digital arts, such as animation.

Meanwhile, noting the industry’s growth, BPO firms are seeking further government incentives, such as extending the duration of income tax holidays from six to eight years. This will help to ensure the country attracts IT and BPO projects, the Information and Communications Technology Office (ICTO) and BPAP said in March.

According to Alejandro Melchor, the deputy executive director of ICTO, “Now is the time to place more incentives on the table, as potential BPO businesses are looking toward the Philippines.”

These incentives would encourage more private companies to capitalise on the recent surge in BPO growth, and increasing investment in training and education would ensure the Philippines maintains its lead against regional rivals.

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