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The Nearshore English Evolution: Competitive Market Demanding More from Panama

With Panama predicted to become the fastest growing economy in Latin America this year, it’s safe to assume that Nearshore services companies will have their eyes on the Central American country. But how prepared are the country’s workers to support the US market?

At this stage, English speaking availability is around 50% of the working population, according to Ariel Ayala, Business Development Manager at ManpowerGroup. “As a country, we are selling Panama as a hub for multinational companies to bring new operations here,” he said. “This is causing the labor market to demand English, as it is necessary for companies to do business on a global scale.”

Ayala stressed that English is a must in Panama: “Almost every company demands English as a skill, so if you don’t have it, your value will decrease – the same person with the same qualifications may get paid US$300 more if they also have English skills.”

Educating the Masses

The government of Panama has identified four priority vocations as being vital for the country’s growth: finance and banking services, hotels and tourism, construction, and information technology workers. INADEH, the country’s public institute for professional training and human development, has established English programs to address these needs, but mainly on a wide-ranging entry level, and not quite at the level required to support Panama’s ambitions.

The Panama Bilingual Program is part of the solution. The initiative includes local and overseas teacher training, additional lessons taught in English for elementary school students, and after-school English classes for secondary school students. The program’s goal is to create 10,000 bilingual teachers and 260,000 bilingual students by 2020.

“While we don’t have a strong base in public schools, private schools have stronger programs, but they still won’t make a person fully bilingual,” said Ayala. “Efficiency is not high, and they ask for only three to four hours a week at a basic level, which is not what enterprises want. In order to learn in a proper way, people need to work in a call center environment and practice a lot, or spend time in the US. In fact, many English speakers come to Panama from US.”

National Uniqueness of Panamanian English

The strongest aspects of Panamanians’ skill in English are their listening and comprehension skills, but their speaking ability is affected by their unique Spanish accent. People in Panama speak very fast in Spanish, a style that has even been described as “singing”. By attempting to speak in the same way in English, they can often be misunderstood or make mistakes.

“Panamanian English is closer culturally to US English,” said Mike Elmalem, Business Development Director at Affinity Global in Panama. “Other geos in the region speak English well, but don’t always understand common terms and concepts that are relevant to the North American market. There are certain nuances and terms that Panama truly understands and comprehension is very high.”

Right now, around 20% of Affinity Global’s workforce are operating in English, but, as the company’s footprint grows, it is looking to do more English work in Panama.

Driving Higher Value Services

Along with Affinity Global, the country has a number of call centers and BPOs, such as Alorica and Sitel, as well as a few shared service centers and command centers, from companies like Caterpillar, Estée Lauder, Dell, and Granger.

Within this sector, salaries for English speakers have gone up in the last couple of years due to competition being much higher. This is also linked to a boost in higher value services being performed in the country.

“As complexity grows, there are opportunities for working with clients in different verticals, such as airlines, as well as complex technical support and financial work,” said Elmalem. “We are looking also at expanding into the medical field, so complex terminology and procedures become part of the job.”

Elmalem reported that Panama offers strong English speakers across the board. When receiving CVs from applicants, they have often been in a US high school or have American parents, showing the large stateside influence. Entry level agents are usually university educated, but the company still offers its own training to compliment the skills applicants already have.

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“In house, we have classes in many areas, including English,” said Elmahem. “We’ve found that cultural training alongside the English training is a good way to introduce the variations in slang from different states, which is also upskilling our people even further.”

In the end, if Panama can overcome the challenges of achieving greater speaking proficiency, as well as reach its lofty ambitions of thousands more bilinguals by 2020, the nation’s well-educated workforce could be the key to attracting more BPO players looking to offer higher value Nearshore services.

Check out other countries in this Nearshore English Evolution series by clicking here. Meanwhile, we’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions on this topic, so please join the conversation in the comments below. 

Matt Kendall

During his 2+ years as Chief Editor at Nearshore Americas, Matt Kendall operated at the heart of both the Nearshore BPO and IT services industries, reporting on the most impactful stories and trends in the sector.

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