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A career in SA’s burgeoning BPO sector – a ray of hope amid SA’s dire youth employment statistics

Promising youth employment and career growth opportunities as SA’s BPO sector makes global inroads

In April to June 2020, 2.5 million young people aged 15 to 34 were unemployed in South Africa, according to Statistics South Africa. The age group’s unemployment rate according to the expanded definition – unemployed people who have given up looking for work – is a shocking 55.2% – the highest unemployment rate worldwide for this age group according to International Labour Organization (ILO). For the 1.1 million learners who write the 2020 National Senior Certificate, it’s a depressing outlook.

Yet, amid the gloom, South Africa’s burgeoning Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector provides hope and opportunity for South Africa’s youth.  It’s an industry that rewards the consistent, brave and hard-working and provides rapid career progression through focused training programmes and development of essential business and interpersonal skills.

“South Africa’s BPO sector (also known as Global Business Services) provides a crucial lifeline for thousands of young people, notably previously disadvantaged and disabled South Africans – who find meaningful and stable employment in this industry.  South Africa’s recent ranking as the second most preferred Global BPO offshore destination in 2020 for the third consecutive year is very good news for our country. South Africa’s Global Business Services sector drew $250 million (R4 billion) worth of investments during the past financial year and has continued to thrive during the Covid-19 lockdown.  The sector is primed to employ 500 000 people in the next 10 years according to Business Process Enabling South Africa (BPESA) and is a significant contributor to GDP,” explains Daniel Shapiro, a director and founder of Alefbet Holdings which owns numerous collections and customer service BPO providers including iContact and Shapiro Shaik Defries and Associates (SSDA) and Metro Collect.

iContact is a BPO specialising in inbound and outbound sales and support services, customer retention and loyalty management, lead generation and back-office fulfilment.  SSDA is a leading specialist collections business with over $500million under management. Metro Collect is a majority Black youth-owned debt collection agency servicing large corporates, municipalities and state-owned enterprises. Across the group of BPO companies within Alefbet Holdings, some 1500 full time, young employees are developing their careers and ambitions.

“South Africa’s BPO sector is in high demand of skilled people, and thus it’s an industry willing to invest in training and developing young, committed people from being inexperienced to masters of their craft.  We have invested heavily into creating a SETA-accredited training provider within Alefbet Holdings focused on management development, learnerships and bespoke training development and delivery serving the broader BPO environment – SA Business School. In this industry, it’s all about providing both academic, technical and interpersonal skills training that allows our people to develop their career paths from agent to senior management positions and across different job roles and disciplines within the business.  It’s one of the reasons why we believe in bringing an executive training approach into our learnership programmes to provide our graduates with a holistic and superior SETA-accredited qualification.  Today’s ambitious collections agent is tomorrow’s top Team Leader, Head of Training or Business Development Manager.  The skills and experience they get in this environment are applicable in virtually every business and industry,” explains Daniel.

For young people with a National Senior Certificate and the drive to perform and grow, South Africa’s burgeoning BPO sector provides tremendous career opportunities, exposure to international clients and business models, specialised education and training opportunities and the opportunity to write your own pay check every month based on individual performance. It’s an industry where attitude, enthusiasm and a solid service ethic will take you as far, if not further than any university qualification, which for many young South Africans remains hopelessly out of reach.

“We are incredibly proud to have many talented people who started out at the rock face as agents, got promoted to management positions, and have been with the business for many years in successful careers. For the thousands of youth who may not find employment in ‘traditional’ work roles, South Africa’s BPO sector could be the answer to a better life, gainful employment and a solid career path with lifelong learning opportunities,” concludes Daniel.

Case studies

Lindiwe Mateisi – from Collections Agent to Payroll Administrator

Lindiwe started working as a debt collection agent in 2005 with Shapiro Shaik Defries & Associates. After embarking on a number of training courses, Lindiwe’s work ethic and capabilities stood out. Lindiwe was promoted to an administrative role which was intensive and taught her the importance of being organised and consistent in her work.  From there she did a stint as a team leader and then finally found her footing in finance as a payroll administrator, a role she continues to fulfil today.

“There is always something new to learn in this business and there’s no shortage of training opportunities if you’re willing to invest the time and effort to enhance your skills.  In fact, ongoing learning is encouraged.  This year marks 15 years with the Alfbet group and I am so proud of where I am today, from where I started.  I currently look after payroll administration across the group and its incredibly rewarding to be part of a busines that is growing and investing in young South Africans by providing opportunities, training and mentorship,” says Lindiwe.

Mpho Phenethi – from Agent to Campaign Manager

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Mpho Phenethi

Mpho started on a learnership programme with Shapiro Shaik Defries & Associates in 2007, training as a collections agent.  Her work ethic spoke for itself and with a few years of experience under her belt, Mpho was promoted to Team Leader, a role she held for three years and where she discovered her passion for working with people.   In 2015, an opportunity opened up for a Campaign Manager working on the collections accounts for various blue chip retail and telecoms brands.  Mpho was encouraged by one of the Alefbet directors to apply for the position.  She took heed of the gentle nudge despite her own reservations of not having management experience – and was duly appointed to the role which she excelled at as the business provided ample training and mentorship. It was during this time that Mpho’s obvious passion for working with young people stood out, and her natural teaching and mentoring capabilities caught the attention of her supervisors. In 2019, Mpho was offered a new role as Campaign Manager in the training department of SSDA, where her collections experience and passion for teaching were honed.

“I absolutely love the training and education environment and especially working with young people.  I have a real passion for empowering youth and showing them that they can take hold of and engineer the future they want.  As a mother, the youth unemployment situation in South African really scares me.  I think that is why I am so passionate about this specific role as I get to engage on a very personal level with our agents.  Some of them arrive with little direction or understanding of the world of work, but they have heaps of enthusiasm.  It is incredibly gratifying to play a role in giving direction to that enthusiasm, to empower and encourage them to take control of their careers and find the financial freedom that an income and training as a collections agent provides – not only for themselves but often for their extended family too. For youth who start out as agents and stay focused and motivated, there’s tremendous scope for promotion within the business and especially to work on client campaigns across diverse industries – which keeps things fresh and exciting. There is always something new to learn,” says Mpho.

Ernest Monyemangane – from collections agent to Operations Manager

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Ernest Monyemangane

Through a chance introduction by his cousin, Ernest applied for a job as a collections agent with Shapiro Shaik Defries & Associates in 2010.  Ernest progressed rapidly, working for 12 months as a collections agent before being promoted to Team Leader in 2011, and then to Campaign Manager in 2012.    The role of Campaign Manager is tough and pressurised with multiple client campaigns running simultaneously. However, Ernest took the role in his stride and in 2018 he was promoted to Productivity Manager.  This involved managing head counts across multiple teams and campaigns, and ensuring that the productivity of the teams matched the workload and schedules, as well as delivered on campaign targets and objectives. His role was about constant improvement and enhancements to ensure the optimal performance of every agent, working together as a cohesive team.

In 2019, Ernest was promoted to Operations Manager for a new entity within the AlefBet group – Metro Collect – a Black-youth owned collections agency servicing large corporates, municipalities, and state-owned enterprises.

“It’s been a real thrill to move into establishing and building a new business like Metro Collect. I like to think that my experience and years of being a soccer captain played an important role in how I manage and motivate people and get them to work together as a cohesive team towards a common goal. I think my soccer captaincy experience really helped me in identifying the right people for the various roles, but also in finding the potential in people and how to get the best out of them.  So much about being a soccer captain is about leading from the back and watching your team and how they perform – and then seeing where to make performance enhancements. It’s a lot like that in this business too.  I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to study project management through the business and up my skill sets and business understanding through various training programmes.  Of course, the job has its stresses as you are always chasing performance targets – but that’s what keeps it fresh and competitive and keeps your motivation levels up.  For me, the most important lesson I have learned over the years is to always remember where you started, and to appreciate where you are.  Take nothing for granted,” says Ernest.

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