Jamaica's biggest secret

EDWARD SEAGA

Sunday, April 22, 2018

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I spent last weekend in Montego Bay. I had not been there for years and yearned to see some of the developments now taking place. I was not disappointed, but sadly, the time was short. Montego Bay is like a second home to me. I spent three of my pre-teen years there and I recall them being some of my happiest times.

My visit was to receive an award for being the person who pioneered what I called a digiport, which was the foundation of what is now Jamaica's Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry. It was quite a pleasant surprise to me that people there had remembered the role I played in getting the operation going in 1988, particularly to give young people the opportunity of getting a job that was compatible with their ability and needs.

On hearing and reading of the BPO I thought it must be an arm of the Government post office (GPO), but it was nothing like that. It was about transmitting digital data from and back to the source after processing. This reduces time and costs.

In the late 1980s I was concerned by the distribution of jobs among the different age groups, so I drew up a diagram showing each age group and what it was doing. After using the labour force data from STATIN it showed that young girls were at a disadvantage in getting jobs in comparison to other groups.

As a coincidence, I received a visit at that time by the president of Cable and Wireless (which at the time was operating as Telecommunications of Jamaica), who told me about the use of electronically transmitted data and how use was being made of it for employment, especially for young girls. He then asked whether I would wish the Government to play a role, and if so, in a three-way collaboration with Cable and Wireless and American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), one of the largest companies in the USA.

After we spoke a bit more on the matter I indicated that, subject to no negatives being involved and support from Cabinet, we would be very happy to join the venture. I proposed the name digiport. My mind became very active, wondering how many young people could be involved.

The triumvirate of companies would be operating in Montego Bay because I had promised the people there to establish some part of the motion picture industry in the Montego Bay area. A well known attorney and friend of mine in the music business in New York did his best to help, but finally told me that it was not possible because there were so many parts involved in putting a motion picture together. So I put it in the back of my mind saying, “Someday, someday!”

When this telecommunication project was referred to me I was really pleased and spoke with a gathering of young people. Many of them made their way to the establishment of the operation in the Montego Bay Freeport to learn further and be registered. Indeed, there were so many that I had to later allocate the overflow to the Kenilworth youth camp in Hanover to help the programme. Kenilworth was built as a boys' camp for training in skills, so it was ideal.

Currently, the BPO industry has about 30,000 operators largely built up in recent years, after the foundation was laid by me in 1988 which I then called the digiport industry. Establishment of further digiports were abandoned by the new Government between 1989 and 1996. Since then the name was changed to BPO, which is the international name.

The present group of employers are from the Fortune magazine list of the top 500 companies in the United States, including AT&T, which is one of the biggest. AT&T was actually a founding investor in 1988 in the digiport. Companies are now located in the Corporate Area, Portmore in St Catherine, Mandeville in Manchester, selected locations in St Elizabeth, Lucea in Hanover, Ocho Rios in St Ann, and of course Montego Bay. New companies are expected in other townships.

The earnings of the present group of companies are US$600 million ($75 billion) per year, counting foreign exchange. This makes the BPO industry one of the biggest earners of foreign exchange in Jamaica. Compare this with another major project in the 1980s, the garment industry, which also had 30,000 workers but with US$185 million in foreign exchange earnings.

But there is a problem now, however, in finding substantial additional workers who have sound academic backgrounds in English. This is being dealt with by recruiting from universities and colleges. The BPO I visited last Thursday had 50 per cent university graduates.

When I received an invitation to attend the BPO conference in Montego Bay, I set out for Montego Bay Conference Centre on Friday morning, April 13th, by car. That was a wonderful experience for me as we made the trip leisurely in three hours which, without the highway, would have taken at least some four hours.

The conference centre in Montego Bay was like a First-World establishment. It differed from the Jamaica Conference Centre in Kingston which had an internal Jamaican décor, and deliberately so, to achieve a Jamaican image. I will never forget that I was given a one-year timeline to build that centre with the Urban Development Corporation. It was thought that it could not be done in one year, but it had to be done because it was to be the headquarters of the Seabed Authority of the United Nations. So we turned the lights on to permit work 24 hours a day, and it was done.

When I visited the BPO on Knutsford Boulevard, I remarked at how many Jamaican workers were involved, even though it required proper English spelling, speaking and writing. The answer I got was that right now there is a shortfall, which is proving difficult to fill. But university graduates who can't find work for which they were trained are now doing BPO work.

This is obviously the time for secondary schools to undertake courses in the requirements (English), as this is a growing opportunity for a good deal of employment.

The result is going to show up in the statistics for youth employment, especially females. This is what happened in the 1980s and it contributed to the establishment of nearly 100,000 jobs in three years. It will happen again because it is a big priority in the vision of Prime Minister Andrew Holness and all well-thinking people who want employment for the young school leavers and others.

I want to express my deep gratitude to Mrs Gloria Henry, the president of the BPO Association who, along with a dedicated staff, is creating a bigger BPO programme for the betterment of young Jamaicans and others.

The young people of Jamaica are, in part, one of the greatest resources of the country. They gave us reggae music, which has placed Jamaica in the centre of the world cultural map, and young athletes who have made the world look at them in awe for their astounding performances. I have much faith in their skills and determination to build a better Jamaica with world respect and admiration.

 

— Edward Seaga is a former Prime Minister of Jamaica, the Chancellor of the University of Technology and is a Distinguished Fellow at the University of the West Indies

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