Wed | Oct 4, 2023

BPO jobs on the line

GSAJ urges firms to seek contracts beyond simple customer service as AI could sink companies

Published:Tuesday | April 11, 2023 | 12:43 AMSashana Small/Staff Reporter
Anand Biradar, head of the GSAJ.
Anand Biradar, head of the GSAJ.

The rapid advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) technology could lead to thousands of jobs being lost in Jamaica’s global services sector in the next few years. This is the prediction from Global Services Association of Jamaica (GSAJ)...

The rapid advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) technology could lead to thousands of jobs being lost in Jamaica’s global services sector in the next few years.

This is the prediction from Global Services Association of Jamaica (GSAJ) President Anand Biradar and AI researcher and PhD student Matthew Stone.

“I think there is a possibility, within the next five years, that the BPO (business process outsourcing) sector could be fully automated. Even if it’s not fully automated, I could see up to 70 per cent of the workforce being automated, meaning they would definitely lose their jobs,” said Stone, who is in his final year at The University of the West Indies.

The sector employs more than 44,000 Jamaicans, and is the island’s third largest employer behind the Government and the tourism industry. It contributes roughly US$890 million (J$136 billion) to the Jamaican economy annually, equivalent to six per cent of gross domestic product.

Approximately 90 domestic and international companies operate in Jamaica and provide services which include information technology, BPO and customer experience management.

Biradar pointed out that the sector has enjoyed an average of 20 per cent growth over the last five years, but with more AI use, as well as the country’s current low unemployment rate of 6.6 per cent, that growth is expected to slow down going forward.

“The speed at which automation is happening is increasing. The sector will grow, but the growth will not be as amazing as it has been for the last five years,” he said.

But while the academic believes the fallout is likely to be significant, the GSAJ head does not think the situation is quite so bleak.

He predicts that the sector could see a 20 per cent fallout in the next 18-24 months, although this could still mean thousands of jobs being lost.

Biradar noted that AI has always been a feature of the industry, but the launch of language processing tool ChatGPT last November has given a clear indication of what is possible for the future. This is particularly evident as it now has the backing of Microsoft, which recently announced that it would be investing US$10 billion in OpenAI, the startup that created ChatGPT.

And while Stone is pointing to the advancements of conversational technologies, he predicts that there will come a point when “these tools can have realistic human voices, and there have been examples of that”.

But Biradar said that these changes are more likely to impact companies that provide “simpler tasks”, which involve the oft-repeated queries and answers.

“It’s quite natural and expected that simpler transactions, simpler conversations which are done by people today will get automated. So GSS companies that have work that are more simple in nature, they could be at risk,” the GSAJ president said in a Gleaner interview.

However, he disclosed that only between 15 and 18 per cent of the BPO companies in Jamaica offer these kinds of tasks even as he urged these companies to prepare to accommodate the changes.

“It gives time for companies to move up the value chain. It means all the BPO companies should work with their clients and try to get more complex work instead of simple work … . If you are still stuck with simple customer service, five years from now, you may not have a business,” he said.

Biradar also contends that AI advancement will create new job opportunities in the industry, and that a programme organised by Jamaica Promotions Corporation and funded by the International Development Bank has already been implemented to encourage more workers to take up tech-based courses.

Stone, however, is concerned that the pace at which IA is evolving will leave little room for companies to effectively adapt, and alludes to the possibility of a “fallout” in the sector.

A similar concern was shared by a call centre employee, who spoke with The Gleaner on condition of anonymity.

The worker, who has been employed in the industry for four years, said that she is anxious about losing her job, which mainly involves responding to repetitive customer queries.

“That would be a problem, and I could see thousands of people losing their jobs,” she stated.

The worker also shared that during her years with the company, she had not been afforded many upskilling opportunities.

Another industry worker told The Gleaner that while the AI technology will make his job more productive, it cannot replace the human interaction that a lot of customers require, and so he is not worried.


Meanwhile, C&W Business Vice-President Stephen Price also pointed to the opportunities that AI presents to transform businesses.

He told The Gleaner that regulations should be created to address new advancements in AI technology, noting that globally governments are playing catch-up where this is concerned.

“We’ve always adopted regulatory frameworks from other territories, but I believe at the rate of advancement of the technology, we can’t afford to wait, and must play an active role in defining it for our industry,” he told said, insisting that both the Government and academia should play a role in this.

“The number one job needed right now is that of prompt engineers, who, simply put, create and adapt prompts to instruct AI to generate specific text output or outcomes. In the regulatory space, I’d argue that we may even be looking at a world where regulators may need to have “prompt engineers” to also assist with the crafting of regulations and legislation in the future, given the pace of advancement,” he said.

Price also noted that AI advancements also have implications for other sectors.

He cautioned that every industry should paying attention to these developments as many lower white- and blue-collar jobs could potentially be at risk.