Monday, December 1, 2014

Supply of English-capable Filipinos falls short of call-center demand

Way back in 2003, in an essay that I wrote for my English-usage in The Manila Times, I wrote about the special circumstance of the Philippines as a major exporter of English-capable manpower. I observed that the English acquired by Filipinos after being colonized by the United States for half a century was making a great life-saving difference for some 8 million Filipinos who had to work overseas for lack of gainful employment in their homeland. I argued then that barring any major reverses in the global labor market, the Philippines would be running out of its English-proficient labor exports in a few years. I then suggested that to stave off depletion of this supply, the country must undertake an intensive, no-nonsense training program to build the English proficiency of its labor pool and to assiduously improve it over the long term.

I wrote that essay at a time when the Philippines was just starting to nurture its fledgling call-center industry—a special employment variation in which modern communications technology makes it it possible for the country to export its English skills while physically keeping the manpower in the homeland. Last year or a decade later, fueled by the abundance of low-cost but highly-skilled English-speaking Filipinos, the Philippines became the top call-center country in the world—even overtaking India in the process.

But now a serious systemic problem has cropped up—the supply of qualified English-speaking Filipinos can no longer keep up with the growing call-center demand. Today, it looks like only one out of every 100 English-capable applicants interviewed by the leading call-center companies are actually hired, and that only 3 to 5 out of every 20 trainees survive the typical intensive one-month training. Clearly, as I suggested in that 2003 essay of mine, the Philippine government more than ever needs to put up an efficient, stable mechanism for replenishing its much-in-demand but depleted marketable English-speaking stock.

So here again is that 2003 essay of mine to put things in clearer perspective. (November 30, 2014)

Priming up our English exports

The special circumstance of the Philippines as a major exporter of English-capable manpower is a strategic advantage and strength for which we should be truly grateful. In truth, only God knows where our country’s economy would be right now if not for the English we have acquired after almost a half-century of colonization by the United States. We can rant and rave forever against this colonization from an ideological or geopolitical standpoint, but one fortunate fact will be indisputable: our passable English has made the great life-saving difference for some 8 million Filipinos who work overseas for lack of gainful employment in their homeland, as well as for their 40 million or more dependents back home who subsist on their $8 billion to $10 billion (400 to 500 billion Philippine pesos) in annual foreign exchange remittances. This happy accident of history as well as saving grace is something we share with only one other major English-capable country in the Asian region, India, and whether we like it or not, how we will deal with it in the next several years will largely shape our national destiny.

As with any other national resource, however, our English-proficient pool of professionals, health care and social workers, teachers, entertainers, househelps, and laborers is fast being depleted by the relentless waves of our labor diaspora. Barring any major reverses in the global labor market, we will run out of our English-proficient labor exports in a few years if we make no serious effort now to replenish them. The day will come when we will begin scrounging around for our English-speaking runts, or those who have achieved only a pitiful smattering of spoken English and cannot even write a decent English sentence. This will happen because although the Philippine economy has become so terribly dependent on overseas labor exports for economic survival, the government has not bothered to set up an efficient, stable mechanism for replenishing its depleted English-speaking stock. On the contrary, it has actually de-emphasized the teaching of English in favor of Pilipino in the primary and secondary schools. It has blithely ignored the fact that it is the English of its labor exports that has been saving its skin all this time, propping up the battered and faltering economy. This is like cutting the only rope that prevents us from falling headlong into the precipice of economic ruin.

It is high time the government finally recognized both the danger and opportunity in our current overseas labor situation. To put it even more bluntly, we must make sure that our English-capable labor exports are not only deployable but also the preferred choice of the overseas labor markets. The demand side is growing but our supply side is now on “low bat” after so many years running, so to speak. The only way to stave off depletion of this supply is to conduct an intensive, no-nonsense training program to build our English proficiency as a people and to assiduously improve it over the long term. We have already lost out by default to many of our Asian neighbors in the areas of technology, manufacturing, and agriculture, but the fact is that we are still miles and decades ahead of them in English proficiency, no matter how low its levels may have sunk in recent years. English is our only highly viable and competitive export product remaining today. Let us not lose out on this one; let us nurture and not neglect it.

One immediate course of action the government can take is to train a highly professional, high-performing corps of teachers with a strong English-language orientation. It can create a highly selective scholarship program for this purpose, similar to the National Science Development Board (NSDB) program in the 1960s. The program can aim for an annual quota of, say, 10,000 to 20,000 high school seniors with excellent English, science, and mathematics skills as well as outstanding aptitude for teaching; prequalify them through a rigorous state-conducted exam; and put them in a special, highly intensive teaching degree course as state-sponsored scholars. The best and brightest of our young people can be attracted to this program by guaranteeing them highly competitive salaries and privileges upon graduation. After all, their work will be truly radical and missionary: to teach English and the basic academic disciplines not simply for domestic needs but for international competitiveness in the foreign labor markets. The long-term goal, of course, is to spearhead the liberation of our educational system from mediocrity and to spark a Renaissance in the teaching and learning of English, science, and mathematics in both the public and private schools.

In perhaps five to six years’ time, this elite group of teachers can be deployed to strategic points of the country to do two very crucial tasks: to take leadership positions in the regional or provincial educational hierarchies, and to set up and run local retraining programs in English, science, and mathematics for primary and secondary teachers. They will also set the mechanism for replacing or retiring teachers who do not meet the much higher teaching standards that will be pursued in all levels. Only through a well-focused, purposive, and long-term initiative like this can we ensure the continuity of our overseas labor exports as a source of badly needed foreign exchange, and ensure that the products of our school system are superior to those supplied by other labor exporting countries.

The formation of this elite group of English-oriented educators and teachers will not only be a pragmatic move but a symbolic one as well. It will announce in no uncertain terms the government’s strong and earnest desire to build a much stronger educational system that is fully in tune with the needs of the modern-day world economy. It can in fact become the launching pad for the long-dreamed overhaul of the educational system that government officials and educators had only been paying lip service to all these years. On top of this, it will serve notice to the world that the Philippines is finally taking its primacy in the English language very seriously, and that it intends to dearly keep and improve its 100-year lead in English as a matter of national pride and survival. (2003)
From the book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language by Jose A. Carillo © 2004 by the author, © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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