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Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

Every day the reception area at CareerBox in Umhlanga, north of Durban, is abuzz with hundreds of young, unemployed people desperately looking for a foot into the job market.

The recruitment and training company screens and processes up to 200 applications for call centre jobs. Some of those are from graduates — not surprising when you consider that the official national unemployment rate stood at 32.1% in the fourth quarter last year, up from 31.9% in the previous three month-period.

Mondays are busiest when about 500 people streaming into CareerBox’s offices. "Most people hear about the company from others," said founder and MD Lizelle Strydom.

In the long queues are young people whose aspiration is to get a job and support their families, many of whom live in abject poverty.

The department of trade, industry & competition has identified the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry, which includes call centres as a priority sector, particularly for addressing youth unemployment. Providing incentives to companies, it aims to create 500,000 jobs by 2030. The local BPO sector is valued at $2.1bn and that’s projected to reach $6.49bn by 2031 — a compound average annual growth rate of 13%, according to research firm Growth Market Reports.

Strydom said no applicant at CareerBox goes home without having received help. There is no age limit — even those who left school at grade 11 can apply.

CareerBox recruits and trains agents for its anchor client, CCI South Africa, which is part of CCI Global, one of Africa’s biggest BPO groups whose blue-chip international clients are spread across Europe, the US, UK, and Australia and operate in industries such as telecom, retail, insurance, cruise ships and airline industries.

Strydom, a former call centre agent at CCI, says CareerBox changed the way CCI recruits and introduces newcomers. "Traditionally, CCI would go out to the market and say ‘we need 100 people with two years’ experience dealing with customers in the US’. CCI wasn’t going to get those numbers if they continued [that way] because many of those people only knew of the US through television.

"So we had to change our recruitment process to identify more potential than previous experience. We have a robust selection and assessment process. We assess behaviour, communication and typing skills, comprehension, literacy and numeracy rather than [just] experience or qualification. So all employees that go into CCl, their first point of contact will be on CareerBox."

Training takes about three weeks and once they pass, candidates join CCI where they undergo another four weeks of technical training. More training follows after candidates start working. Candidates receive a weekly stipend to help them with transport and food.

"What we are very bullish about is the job opportunity. We measure our success based on how many people get employed. Currently, we have a 92% placement rate within CareerBox. Between January and June last year we trained 6,500 people and they successfully got jobs. We found 73% of the individuals who come through are aged 23-26," said Strydom.

Over the past five years CareerBox has built a database for candidates who didn’t make it to the programme and through its partnerships has recommended them to other sectors such as retail and hospitality.

Since it opened in 2013, CareerBox has trained 60,000 people who are now working in the BPO sector, at CCI and also in other industries.

"So there’s a massive need in South Africa for people with customer service skills, whether it’s in hospitality or BPO, or any other industry," said Andrew Rall, CCI managing executive for marketing.

"Even if someone has been in BPO for six months and they get a job as a receptionist or junior PA, that experience they’ve got going through an international training programme for a Fortune 500 company and dealing with customers in the UK and the US is priceless," he added.

Peter Andrew, CEO of CCI South Africa, said many senior leaders at the call centre started as customer service agents and have since gone on to build careers in senior management positions, and in different departments. The BPO industry, like any other, also has a range of support roles, including HR, finance, IT and operations.

Andrew said South Africa has earned global recognition as a favourite and trustworthy offshore outsourcing destination. A large talent pool, low costs, sufficient expertise and easy-to-understand neutral English accents are some of the key factors prompting companies to choose South Africa as an outsourcing destination. About 170 BPOs service the international market.

CCI has been in South Africa for 19 years and most of its clients are international companies. Its call centres run 24 hours as its clients operate in different time zones.

One of its biggest clients is a UK telecom company that has been with CCI since it set up office in SA. CCI offers comprehensive customer care services including technical and also runs the social media pages of the UK telecom company from its offices in Umhlanga, Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Over the past four years, CCI has expanded its operations and opened branches in Nairobi, Kenya; Accra in Ghana; Kigali, Rwanda; and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. CareerBox has also set up shop in those countries to help recruit and train candidates for CCI and they have opened a centre in Umlazi, Durban, the first one in a township. Andrew said the company is considering adding more.

CCI employs 10,500 people in its centres, with the biggest in Durban. By 2030, it wants to employ 20,000 agents across its markets.

The company not only has comprehensive training for all employees; last year it launched the CCI IT Academy to help build digital skills for the industry.

"The IT Academy provides an avenue for growth for agents and employees across CCI into the IT department, thereby growing the skills base in the BPO industry. Our aim with the academy is to ... address the skills shortage in the IT sector," said Andrew.

CCI offers many benefits to its employees, including on-site clinic premises staffed by a general practitioner and gynaecologist, as well as on-site counselling, nursing and dentistry services. It also has a salon offering haircuts and beauty treatments, and canteen services.

"BPO offers an opportunity for young, unskilled and inexperienced individuals to enter the job market," said Andrew. "South Africa has amazing young people who don’t have the opportunity in all sectors but the BPO sector is where there is an opportunity for employment and a huge opportunity for them to build a career."

Strydom said Africa "is filled with talented young people who simply haven’t had the opportunities to develop their skills".

"We have witnessed first hand how so many capable and ambitious young people have managed to secure their first job after completing our workplace readiness training programmes, thereby securing not only their futures, but uplifting their entire families in the process.

"We are excited to expand our operations in Umlazi and nurture the next generation of talent for the BPO industry," Strydom added.

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