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The contact centre industry is one of the few sectors of the economy that has been creating jobs in the last few years. Over 100 000 jobs have been added to the economy between 2003 and 2008.

Even though the growth of the industry has slowed down recently, finding good people is still a challenge. Leading companies have taken the currently reduced workload as an opportunity to explore more cost effective ways to attract and develop talent. The success of such programmes suggests that the time has now come to increase their scale so that the industry continues to have the people it needs to grow.

During the boom years preceding the recent recession, many contact centre managers preferred looking for experienced agents that could be hired with little lead times and who were ready to perform the moment they arrived. Hiring and developing people was done with little foresight, mostly in response to operational pressures. The poaching of staff was a common practice – agents would change jobs for only a small increase in salary.

This has changed. Most contact centres report reduced attrition rates. In the current economic climate employees are far more concerned with job security and no longer move around to the extent they used to. Companies, which want to hire good people, have no choice but to develop their own people or as a manager put it, Lto grow their own timber”. Nearly 90% of the company’s surveyed will recruit staff with no prior experience.

The development of people is high on the agenda of companies, the industry and government. Pilot programmes, such as Monyetla or SETA learnerships aimed at introducing new talent into contact centres have been enthusiastically adopted and have received positive feedback. Over 56% of the respondents do currently run learnerships. 87% of which are considered to be a success. Given the incentives offered by government this is no surprise:

  • Salary savings: Company can significantly reduce their salary bill. A learner allowance typically is R1500 per month.
  • Tax breaks: Government offers a tax break of up to R60 000 per learner which means a company pays up to R 16 800 less tax per learner.
  • Generous training grants: The recruitment and training of these learners can often be funded through grants.
  • Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE): If structured properly a company can earn up to 15% of its BBBEE score from learnerships.

In essence, a learner comes at no costs to a company if grants are available. Learners are highly motivated individuals who appreciate the opportunity of employment and typically match more experienced agents in terms of retention and are on par in terms of performance within three months.

As the results from this study show, most of these programmes are implemented as mature partnerships between the in-house and external training providers. There seems to be a clear understanding of each stakeholder’s strengths. External providers offer mainly generic training that meets the onerous standards set by the SETAs. 78% of external providers are therefore SETA accredited. In-house training on the other hand focuses primarily on company specific issues and therefore does not need to be accredited. Only 31% of in-house training is accredited.

Training is not only limited to new agents. Contact centres spend at least one day a month training their existing staff. Almost 50% of all contact centres are concerned with providing their agents with a formal industry qualification through Recognition of Prior Learning programmes.

A ladder of learning of formal qualifications exists across progressive levels on the National Qualifications Framework that matches the career path of an agent progressing to the level of supervisor, and then manager. This bodes well for the professionalization of the industry and will, in the long-term, alleviate the current shortage of qualified supervisors and managers.

This report clearly shows that the major pillars for the sustainable development of talent in the industry are in place. The challenge now is to roll out these programmes on a larger scale, which will require an increase in funding available for such initiatives and the continued collaboration of the industry, the SETAs and government.

The contact centre industry is committed to develop its staff. A request for proposal by the industry association BPeSA for the development of entry-level agents and supervisors was oversubscribed by a factor of ten in early 2009.

This is all good news for the country. Companies need well-trained agents that serve their customers well. The industry is able and willing to absorb many of the country’s school leavers, a sector of society bedeviled by unemployed.

The industry has proven its ability to make a contribution to the development of South Africa. It has doubled in size and created over 100 000 positions from 2003 to 2008. Considering that the industry often serves as a springboard for other careers, the number of people who found their first job in a contact centre is therefore actually much higher.

The prospects for continued growth are positive. Customers need to be served even in a recession. Contact Centres will continue to grow as they are one of the most direct and cost effective ways of interacting with customers. South Africa’s chances of attracting international outsourcing work are better than ever. Telecommunications costs are dropping and several of the world largest outsourcers such as Genpact, Teleresources, Teletech and Aegis, have already set up local operations, which is will attract others.

The challenge now remains for the industry to remain proactive and mobilize the necessary resources to scale up many of successful skills development initiatives so that it will not be caught off-guard when new staff are required as growth accelerates.