San Salvador, El Salvador — In a carpeted hallway, with morning sunlight streaming through floor-to-ceiling windows, a worker types on a laptop at a communal high table. A coffee stand is nearby, and a few feet away, a green and white box with labels like “plastic bags,” “bottles” and “straws” reminds folks to recycle.
On another floor, inside a break room, there’s a ping-pong table and a TV monitor showing rapper Eminem in the opening scene from the movie 8 Mile. In the cafeteria, employees keep water-cooler chats to a low volume as they grab a quick bite to eat.
A young man heads to a training session in a computer lab wearing jeans, sneakers and a gray U.S. Polo Association sweatshirt.
This operation has all the trimmings of a modern U.S. office. But the building is in the capital city of El Salvador, and employees there are working to resolve customer service issues for largely American clients. They work for Sykes Enterprises, a Tampa company.
Sykes’ footprint in El Salvador has grown over the last 16 years, and it has become a leader in the country’s booming call center industry.
For Sykes, El Salvador offers eager and relatively inexpensive employees, many with connections to the U.S. For El Salvador, Sykes is helping to fuel the country's sluggish economy.
Sykes has over 70 centers worldwide, in 23 countries, and a total of about 54,000 employees company wide offering companies customer service over the phone, via chat, by email and over social media. It’s headquartered in downtown Tampa in the Rivergate Tower, the cylindrical high rise perhaps better known as the “beer can” building.
The company was founded in 1977, with IBM among its first clients. It no longer publicly identifies the companies it works with, though travel services and major hotel chains are among those who hire Sykes for customer service, technology and transportation. Sykes and its subsidiaries make more than $1 billion a year in revenue.
Sykes was one of the first outsourcing companies to build infrastructure in El Salvador, back in 2004, said Beatriz Peralta, vice president of area operations for Sykes El Salvador.
Before she worked for Sykes, Peralta was executive director of El Salvador’s investment and exports promotion agency, which worked hard to attract the call center industry and with it, foreign investment.
El Salvador offered a skilled workforce that had cultural affinity with the United States and a stable economy, Sykes spokesman Jesse Himsworth said via email.
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In the 1950s and 1960s, El Salvador was touted in international investment circles as a source of cheap labor, said Cecilia Menjivar, a sociology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles who specializes in Central American studies.
“This has always been understood as a very unequal relationship between the two countries,” she said.
In the 1970s, El Salvador’s government created tax-free zones for U.S. companies. But by the end of that decade, civil war had broken out. It lasted for about 12 years, until 1992. The U.S. provided substantial military aid to the government, which reached a peace agreement with leftist guerrillas.
Many Salvadorans fled the violence. Today, about a fifth of the country's people live abroad, with a majority in the U.S., Menjivar said. Salvadorans who migrated maintain close contact with family and friends, which has led to an Americanization of the Central American nation and its people.
Sykes El Salvador started with one location, one client and 175 employees. By March of this year, it had four buildings, nine clients and 3,800 employees, Peralta said. Overall, the company has trained and hired about 20,000 people.
“We have grown year over year, nonstop,” said Edgardo Gonzalez, human capital director at Sykes El Salvador.
Gonzalez has been with the company since 2004, working his way up to his current role.
The company has nurtured some of its workforce by creating Sykes Academy, Gonzalez said.
The program, begun in 2006, offers four-hour, English-language courses each day for four weeks. The classes are free, attracting those who want to work at Sykes or those who hope to leverage English proficiency to get hired elsewhere, Gonzalez said.
The company has hired more than 5,000 people from the program, Gonzalez said,
As more Salvadorans seek employment in call centers, former Sykes employees have opened up their own academies.
In a small room, sitting in lounge chairs, six students ranging from ages 18 to 40 took notes as Edwin “Eddie” Anzora, 42, walked them through the assignment: write up their interview pitch for a job at a call center. It was early March, before the pandemic took hold.
“The most important thing is this,” Anzora said in English while pointing to a whiteboard where he had scribbled notes, “connect work experience to future call center jobs.”
Anzora officially opened the English Cool Training Center in San Salvador in 2015. Previously, he’d worked for Sykes, the French company Teleperformance and another English academy.
“I’ve always had that entrepreneurial spirit,” he said. “I wanted to do my own thing, have my own hours, do my own logo and all that.”
Businesses like his began popping up around 2013, Anzora said, mostly run by former call center employees and the retornados, or deportees, like himself.
Anzora arrived in the U.S. in 1980 at the age of 2. He grew up in the San Fernando Valley in California and was deported in 2007, at 29.
Having spent most of his life in the U.S., Anzora was easily able to connect with customers over the phone.
Today, though, deportees don't stand out, as more Salvadorans from all walks of life work on their English to cash in on call center jobs.
English Cool caters to these job-seekers by not only teaching them grammar but also English tailored to call center work. It also offers job training. The center has had 400 students so far.
After Anzora’s students finished their pitches for interviews, he had them hand over their work, so he could review what they wrote.
“The experience I have in sales helped me create sales techniques, and I can help generate more profits,” Anzora read off one of his student’s assignments.
He looked at the student and offered praise, saying: “Eso esta bonito, ahi vamos. Just gotta give me more of an example.”
Other assignments include watching television shows like Friends, The Big Bang Theory and Key and Peele to get a sense of how different Americans speak and to learn cultural references.
“With American customers, you have to be more polite, you have to be outgoing,” Anzora reminded his students.
Those attending the day’s class included a former real estate agent, a recent high school graduate, a welder and a local government employee. They wanted the same thing, a chance to make ends meet more easily.
A call center employee can make $600 a month with no college education, Anzora said. That’s just under $4 an hour, for a month with 20 work days. But it’s about double the country’s minimum wage and the same salary as a Salvadoran lawyer.
Sykes’ presence in El Salvador has proven worthwhile for the company, meeting or exceeding financial projections each year, said Himsworth, the spokesman.
To address the coronavirus pandemic, Sykes increased office cleaning efforts, got flexible with schedules and provided work-at-home opportunities, Himsworth said.
“As a responsible corporate citizen, Sykes is doing everything in its power to maintain our current headcount and keep it as whole as possible,” he added.
In the first quarter of 2020, the U.S. accounted for more than $2 million in direct investment, according to statistics from the Central Reserve Bank of El Salvador.
El Salvador has historically depended on the international market to purchase one agricultural product at a time, such as cocoa beans, indigo and later coffee. But in recent decades, it has become primarily reliant on the U.S, said UCLA’s Menjivar.
In an attempt to create more incentives for foreign investments, the Salvadoran government switched its currency to the American dollar in 2001.
“People suffered quite a bit economically,” Menjivar said, as prices rose overnight and some were pushed into poverty.
Those who left for the U.S. were not always received warmly, Menjivar said.
Peralta, with Sykes El Salvador, said local job creation means less immigration to the U.S. That addresses one concern about an American company outsourcing its work.
“I think it’s a win-win, where we support U.S. companies in their desire to stay competitive in the market,” Peralta said, “and we help an economy such as El Salvador’s in creating those job opportunities that are needed to keep the people here, to keep the talent here.”
“I don’t want to leave my country if I have the right opportunities,” she said.
Beyond high wages by Salvadoran standards, Sykes El Salvador also provides benefits that include secure transportation to and from workers’ doorsteps for those who end shifts or start between the hours of 10 p.m and 6 a.m., when public transportation is shut down, Peralta said.
She said the company strives to offer career opportunities. All of her operations directors, for instance, have worked on the floor taking calls.
Back at the newest Sykes El Salvador building, which opened in 2017, hundreds of employees sit behind secure doors, in personalized cubicles. Customer greetings fill the air.
In the computer lab on the other side of the building, trainees listen to their instructor sitting before a digital projection on the wall repeatedly ask a young woman how she should best direct a customer’s concern.
Her peers, in jeans, sneakers and T-shirts, lanyards around their necks, watch on with water bottles and snacks strewn about on desks. On the walls around them are guidelines and activity prompts, all in English.
Just outside, next to a row of vending machines, the windows look out to a bird’s eye view of San Salvador. There are brick roofs and packed streets, and beyond, in the distance, dark green hills.
Contact Ileana Najarro at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @IleanaNajarro.
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin American Reporting Initiative.