Free Trade Zones

CITY PROFILE: Barranquilla thrives as a ‘disruptive’ location loaded with benefits


Not so long ago, Colombia’s status as a coastal destination lay on rocky ground. Despite its population – today around 50 million – the country’s bilingual talents were sorely lacking, Coastal Americas found.

Since then, the Nearshore world has changed. Colombia, which enjoys a strategic location in the far north of South America, and thus connects to Central and North America, is a poster child for the Nearshore industry.

Barranquilla, the fourth largest city in the country and positioned on the Caribbean coast and flanked by the Magdalena River which formed the basis of the city’s industrial heritage, is at the heart of Colombia’s specific BPO efforts and is representative of the growth recent from Colombia. Beginning with the launch of Operation Sykes (almost exactly ten years ago), Barranquilla has grown at a breakneck pace – racing to become one of the most significant ‘disruptive’ locations in the entire Southwest region. littoral.

The economy of the department of Atlantico, in which the city is located, grew faster than the national average in 2019 and Barranquilla has the lowest unemployment rate of any Colombian city: 11.5% compared to the national average of 15%. Atlantico’s progress is still relatively young, between 2003 and 2018, the monetary poverty of its population fell from 49.5% in 2003 to 21.3%.

Atlantico has recently won numerous economic awards. Colombia’s largest renewable energy site will be built in the department of Atlantico while the Del Río Arena, a multipurpose stadium and entertainment center, is one of the largest urban development projects in Latin America and will be located next to the Magdalena River. The arena, which will be built by Two Way Stadiums in collaboration with Universal Music Group which will bring its artists to perform at the site, is expected to generate more than 260,000 jobs, directly and indirectly, during construction and operation.

Business friendliness and connectivity

Atlantico and Barranquilla have done a lot to ensure a friendly entry into the local market for international companies. The four permanent free zones located in or near the city offer tax incentives while property prices remain significantly lower than in competing cities. Barranquilla has more than 20 business centers with Class A + offices that cost an average of $ 11.6 per m2 for rent, compared to $ 12.9 per m2 in Medellin or $ 16.8 per m2 in Bogotá.

Internet services are a real strength in the region due to four of the 13 Internet submarine cables that connect Colombia to the rest of the world and reach Atlantico. There is also a direct connection to the Miami Network Access Point, giving businesses the ability to connect more closely with the city of Florida.

Four of the 13 Internet submarine cables that connect Colombia to the rest of the world arrive at Atlantico

Colombia’s Departmental Competitiveness Report, which ranks departments on metrics such as Internet bandwidth, number of households with computer access, households with mobile phone access, and fixed broadband penetration, has placed Atlantico in third place nationally behind the departments of Bogota and Bolivar.

Barranquilla: Educational Powerhouse

Much of Barranquilla’s efforts to attract more BPO businesses and generate opportunities for the local economy has been driven by educational efforts. In 2019, Atlantico was ranked as the best department in Colombia and Barranquilla as the best city in Education First’s English proficiency index.

Miguel Vergara, Minister of Economic Development in the Atlantico government

“By partnering with important BPOs and adapting new education strategies, we are making a real effort to improve English skills here,” Miguel Vergara, Minister of Economic Development in the Atlantico government, told Nearshore Americas.

Atlantico produced more than 240,000 graduates between 2001 and 2019 through its 17 certified higher education institutes. According to statistics from ProBarranquilla, 84% of university graduates from the department leave the university with a B2 level of English. Yet not all graduates want to jump into call center operations, and for the roughly 18,000 BPO job opportunities available in the city, more new English speaking talent is needed.

“There is a great affinity between the locals and the United States, so English is learned quickly. Companies may not always be able to find a large number of bilinguals when they arrive, but within six months there are the people they need, qualified, ”said Vergara.

A large part of this effort is the National Training Service (SENA), a nationally funded public institution that provides vocational training. In Atlantico, SENA has 19 institutions to help develop the English skills of local people who wish to work in the BPO sector.

Director SENA Atlantico Jacqueline Rojas and her team are moving forward with a new English-language learning strategy, English for Work, which they hope will improve on recent poor results from SENA.

Jacqueline Rojas, Director of SENA Atlantico

“We saw that there was a huge opportunity to do better with English training and meet the needs that businesses were telling us they had,” Rojas said.

In 2019, only 0.003% of students enrolled in SENA’s bilingual programs went on to train in BPO companies. After forging stronger strategic alliances with companies such as Teleperformance and Sitel, SENA increased its retention rates to 79% at Atlantico. This strong educational performance expands Barranquilla’s talent pool.

“The relationship between the public and private sectors is close,” said Vergara. “This and the universities provide a strong ecosystem to attract business here. “

Continuous cultural adjustment

Despite the strong Spanish accent of the locals, Barranquilla is well known for its flat English accent, which means that few businesses need accent neutralization training.

This could be attributed to the city’s proximity to US hubs like Miami, which is accessible from Barranquilla on a flight of less than 3 hours. The locals claim a strong cultural affinity with the United States. While this is certainly not a unique feature in the Nearshore market, American culture does feel close to Barranquilla. The fact that a major tourist destination in the United States – Cartagena – is right next door, means that the tourism industry provides plenty of jobs for locals, and people can claim to have a stronger sense of American niceties than in others. ‘other cities like Bogotá or Cali.

“Barranquilla is very Americanized. CEOs and VPs feel very comfortable here, ”Sebastian Calvo, site manager at Nearshore Call Center (NCC), a Colombian subsidiary of US BPO, AGR Group.

“Barranquilla is very Americanized. CEOs and VPs feel very comfortable here. – Sébastien Calvo

NCC provides inbound and outbound services to customers in a number of industries, including energy and utilities, home insurance, and telecommunications. AT&T is one of its customers. Four years of existence, NCC sees itself as a boutique call center that evolves with the demands of its customers. According to Calvo, interest in Barranquilla is growing day by day and NCC is expected to duplicate its workforce by the end of 2022. The company averages about 400 hotel nights per year for interested parties.

“Our beginnings in Colombia were humble. We had a space of 10 places. But now we have over 300 employees, are moving to our second factory in December and aim to double our workforce by next year. With what’s going on in Mexico, we’re getting a lot of business, ”Calvo said.

Javier Chia, Business Unit Director at Sitel

Sitel will become the largest BPO employer in the region, surpassing HGS which employs 2,000 people at its three CX centers in the city, once its workforce is combined with that of Sykes after the recent acquisition of $ 2.2 billion. by Sitel MAXHub Model, which emphasizes flexible workspaces and a more holistic approach to work and life (the inclusion of a free gym with onsite coaches and psychotherapists is one example) aims to rid the company of the traditional – the ideology of the mortar contact center.

“Barranquilla has a large pool of young talent and we want to provide opportunities that improve life,” said Javier Chia, director of the business unit at Sitel in Barranquilla.


  • Population: 1.2 million (2.6 million in the department of Atlantico)
  • Town hall: objective of training 1,500 bilingual professionals per month
  • Bilingualism: 84% of Atlantico graduates leave university with an English B2
  • Universities: 17 certified higher education institutes
  • Connectivity: Four submarine cables connect Atlantico to the outside world
  • Real Estate: USD 11.6 per m2 for commercial offices

Photo credit: Dawin Rizzo