Displaced by robots, PH call center agents shift gears

Katrina Domingo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 28 2018 12:24 PM

MANILA - Replaced by software, call center agent Ken Santo Domingo switched jobs and considered computer school to ride the automation wave that threatens to displace thousands in the outsourcing industry.

The 25-year-old said he used to answer at least 30 calls daily from irate customers disputing credit card charges. His company automated the process, causing a 90-percent reduction in call volume, he said.

"Yung mga customers, instead of calling, maglo-login na lang sa online banking to raise a dispute," he said.

(Instead of calling, customers just log on to an online banking website to raise a dispute.)

Santo Domingo found another call center job that caters to travel concerns. Instead of answering the phone, he replies to emails or provides chat support to clients.

He said he was planning further studies since the call center job market had become "really uncertain."

"I have plans din to shift to being an IT since 'yun 'yung magiging in demand sa BPO in the next few years (that will be the source of demand in BPO in the next few years)," he said.


Socioeconomic Planning Sec. Ernesto Pernia in January urged the BPO industry to upgrade its workers' skills, saying growth in the sector was slowing as companies look increasingly towards artificial intelligence.

"In the next 3-5 years it will really be hitting harder. It will be there, it will be a reality, this AI," Pernia said.

Higher skills will give Filipino BPO workers a competitive advantage, compared to rival destinations. These jobs come with higher pay and more secure tenure, said IT and Business Process Outsourcing Association of the Philippines president Rey Untal.

"Contrary to popular belief, the automation of processes is not meant to replace people, it’s supposed to help them," Untal told ABS-CBN News.

Citing the industry's road map, Untal said 43,000 low-skilled workers could lose their jobs, from 2016 to 2022 but at the same time, there will be openings for 697,000 middle to high-skilled jobs.

BPO companies are working with government to help call center agents upgrade their skills to higher value industries such as healthcare information management, software development and data analytics.

"For the contact center agents’ part, taking a more proactive approach to self-improvement, education and skills development could enable them to acquire up-to-date, industry-standard
skills that will keep themselves competitive in the job market," Untal said.

"Human touch" will still be needed in call center operations, Sitel COO Craig Raines earlier said, citing digital assistants like Apple's Siri and Amazon's Alexa, wherein users hit a wall when the programs don't fully understand the question or request.

"Emotion will be the main added-value. Human touch will be the main differentiator for any company. Based on the trends, we just don't believe that automation and robotics will eliminate human experience," he said.