In the third quarter of 2020 the unemployment rate in South Africa this year rose to a record 30,8%, with discouraged work seekers increasing by 9,1%.

While this is an indication of how the lockdown affected employment in the country, the good news is that some sectors – such as business process outsourcing (BPO) – showed significant resilience during the lockdown and are now poised to create further employment opportunities for more South Africans than ever. This is important as more than 1-million South African students prepare to sit their matric exams – a large portion of which will be seeking job opportunities come January.

Mathew Conn, group chief revenue officer at BPO solutions provider Merchants, explains: “South Africa’s BPO industry continued operating during the national lockdown, allowing consumers to remain in contact with important service providers like banks, medical aid and insurance providers, and internet service providers. Not only did this highlight the importance of the industry locally, but further highlighted South Africa’s strength as a prime location for outsourcing services from other markets – like the USA, Australia, Canada and the UK.”

Late last year, McKinsey reported that the local BPO sector has the potential to create 775 000 jobs by 2030 – currently employing over 270 000 people in South Africa, of which 65 000 serve international clients. Conn explains why the sector is well positioned to create employment opportunities for South Africans in both the short- and long-term.

Widening talent pool

“South Africa is home to a diverse talent pool – wide ranging in terms of age, race, culture, language and skills. As the BPO sector continues to deploy successful work from home (WFH) strategies, this talent pool has widened even further to include those who are differently abled, students without transport, or those in rural and outlying towns, for example. Since all the technological infrastructure can now be provided to each individual and based on their needs, there are no limits on who can and cannot be trained for the job,” explains Conn.

Key skills

Further to this, he explains that South Africans are inherently skilled with problem solving ability – the most sought-after quality in a contact centre agent, based on Merchants 2020 research. “In my experience, this is the greatest strength of South African agents and what sets them apart from agents in other destinations. This core skill greatly improves customer experience – which is the most important differentiator for brands and businesses today,” says Conn.

Industry focus on skills development

“South Africa’s BPO industry is committed to skills development and skills transfer, and has the support of the government in these efforts. This dedication greatly improves the quality of talent available to those looking to hire agents, and ensures the country remains a key destination for BPO,” he says.

In November 2020, for example, the College of Cape Town launched the country’s first official BPO Academy, in partnership with government and the private sector.

“For matric learners, the skills development and employment opportunities presented by the sector are a positive steppingstone in building a career. Skills and experience in problem solving, interpersonal communication, and multi-tasking, for example, are valuable in many roles and professions,” explains Conn.

Industry resilience

Lastly, Conn touches on the resilience of the sector. “The COVID-19 pandemic has been a prime example of the resilience of the BPO sector, and this success has been noted by businesses throughout the world during this time. More and more international businesses will be looking to invest in multi-region outsourcing strategies to protect their businesses from circumstances such as natural disasters, strike action and pandemics – and South Africa is positioned to become the delivery region of the future. This bodes well for job creation, not only for the youth but for all South African seeking opportunity,” he says.

The rest of 2020’s matric results are being released this week, meaning that more than a million South Africans could be entering the job market this year. “In an economy grappling with the effects of the pandemic, South Africa’s BPO sector presents a viable way to incorporate many of these job seekers into the economy and begin building an even larger skilled talent pool for South Africa,” concludes Conn.