Call-center agents, Filipinos chatting on their headsets to inquiring English-speaking customers half a world away, were supposed to provide the answer to the Philippines’ economy. They could be drawn from the country’s famously large pool of English speakers to tap into the lucrative offshoring and outsourcing (O&O) market.
But employers in the industry say they now have to reject 95 of 100 job applicants because their English proficiency is inadequate.
A country where spoken English once ranked as an official language has seen its collective proficiency slide over the years, even as the economic importance of the lingua franca has grown. The decline stems in part from nationalist campaigns to promote Filipino and from inattention in schools, which the government is taking steps to undo.
“I believe that every Filipino who wants to work in a call center and whose English is good enough to work in a call center is already working in a call center,” says one foreign O&O manager, who asked not to be identified.
Shrinking labor supply
The Philippine economy creates so few jobs that one-tenth of the population of 90 million work abroad, and their remittances account for about 10 percent of gross domestic product.
The Business Processing Association of the Philippines (BPAP), which represents the bulk of the O&O industry, had hoped that by the end of 2010 O&O would indirectly contribute about 8.5 percent of GDP and directly employ 900,000 people.
Over the years the industry has expanded to become one of the world's largest, and its goals are on target. But BPAP now expects it to have only 620,000 Filipino employees by year’s end because it cannot expand fast enough. Employers say it is increasingly difficult to find people with adequate English, and some O&O employers think the labor supply has dried up.
English once dominated
The shortage is ironic given that the Philippines once boasted, with some justification, of being the world’s third largest Anglophone country.
Shiploads of American teachers brought English to the Philippines after the United States took the islands from Spain a more than a century ago. When it gained independence in 1946, English was so well established that it remained an official language, along with Spanish.
Then, in 1973, the constitution imposed by the dictator Ferdinand Marcos made Filipino (based on the local tongue of Manila and surrounding provinces) an official language alongside English. In the 1970s. Filipino began to supplant English as the main language of instruction in schools, in the name of nation building. Since then, advertisers have increasingly run media campaigns in Filipino to target the mass market.
Some think the decline has more general causes. As the economy has underperformed, so has education. About 43 percent of students finish high school and only 2 percent finish college. And a Department of Education study in 2004 showed that only 1 in 5 in public high school teachers was proficient in English.
Long-term foreign residents say that in the late 1960s it was possible to converse in English with almost any Filipino that had attended elementary school. They say it is now hard to find ordinary Filipinos under the age of 40 who can speak English confidently.
Reversing the decline
The government recognizes the decline, which is widely bemoaned in the local media. In 2003 the government ordered the teaching of English as a second language in elementary schools and made it the medium of instruction for 70 percent of teaching in high schools. It has since mandated remedial English classes for teachers.
“I think the government is trying,” says Garcia. “They should actually increase standards, and the industry is ready to work with them.”
The O&O industry has set up its own programs to improve standards, and provide the training needed to bring job applicants’ language skills up to snuff.
“If we do not supply the demand, then we will lose our business,” Garcia says. “We will always need the English language.”