South Africa is set to become a preferred destination for Dutch companies wanting to outsource their customer contact centres, according to Michel Arends, Cape representative of the South African Netherlands Chamber of Commerce (SANEC) and managing director of the Communication and Contact Centre Training Institute (CCTI). There are already two contact centres in Cape Town serving the Netherlands, and the province has set a target of 1,500 new Dutch-language jobs by the end of 2007.

This is thanks to an innovative language programme being run by the CCTI at the University of the Western Cape, in partnership with SANEC, the government and promotional agency CallingtheCape.

The CCTI has already successfully trained 19 young South Africans ­ all of them previously unemployed ­ to speak and understand sufficiently professional Dutch to work successfully in call centres. The 19 are currently employed in the Dutch call centre People2Contact, based in Bellville.

Another 12 students have recently started their training, signing up for an intensive eight hours a day, five days a week over three months. The classes are small ­ one teacher for each four students ­ and conducted entirely in Dutch. "Our goal is to train our students to speak fluently enough (and understand enough) so that they can do call centre work of an acceptable quality," says director training, language and development Karin Benjamin van Lierop, who developed the course. "We’ve proved it’s possible to do that in just three months".

Students also learn as much as possible about Dutch culture: "The Dutch style is very straightforward and can sometimes appear rude to people who aren’t used to it," says Benjamin. "The Netherlands today is also a very diverse and changing society, with lots of immigrants ­ 50% of all children in Amsterdam have parents who were not born in the country. Call centre agents need to understand and be able to work in this context".

So far the programme has been a great success, with existing agents rated highly for their customer service and current students all guaranteed jobs on successful graduation.

The CCTI plans to train 500 students by the end of 2005, so the centre is poised for rapid growth, needing to take in about 20 new students every month. "We’re looking for recruits all the time now," says Benjamin. "Candidates need to speak excellent Afrikaans, have a matric with at least a C in English and Afrikaans and be motivated and eager to learn; if our tests show that they have the ability to learn Dutch, they have a good chance of success".

By 2007, says Calling the Cape executive director Luke Mills, the vision is for the Western Cape to have least 1,500 Dutch-language call centre seats in about five different companies. "South Africa can offer cost reductions of at least 40% compared to the Netherlands," he says. "Combined with our reputation for excellent customer service in call centres, this puts us in a very good position to bring in a lot of new business, and new jobs, over the next few years".