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Bogota strives to walk the talk – in English

Gustavo Escobar sits in a fifth-floor classroom in a nondescript building near downtown Bogota and, in English, discusses with 14 other night-school students whether animals have human-like feelings.

Mr. Escobar runs a five-person software company that has won work with one of the multinational companies that are increasingly setting up shop in Colombia's capital city. But he believes his poor English skills are holding back his company's potential to land new business.

So five nights a week for two hours, he attends a conversational English program called Talk to the World, a joint venture of the city government and Invest in Bogota, the investment promotional agency funded by the local chamber of commerce and government.

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"I want to try to do business with international companies, and for that, I need to improve my conversation tools," the 49-year-old businessman said in passable but halting English during a break.

His classmates – 11 women and three men, mostly much younger than he – are students and small-business people, employees and the unemployed. They need to improve their English conversation skills, but also their ability to read instructional manuals and corporate material. "This has been an excellent opportunity for all of us," Mr. Escobar said of the free language classes.

Bogota is not only talking to the world; it's eager to join the global marketplace.

After two decades of civil war and periods during which drug lords had political control of key cities, Colombia has achieved a modicum of stability and is enjoying solid economic growth.

Latin America's third most populous nation and fifth-biggest economy, Colombia is rated by the World Bank as having one of the best business environments in the region, despite continuing concerns about human rights violations and political violence.

Fuelled by expanding oil and mining sectors, the country has enjoyed a boom in foreign investment. Its capital, Bogota, is a growing financial, commercial and distribution centre. But the city faces serious challenges, including a huge underground economy and crumbling infrastructure.

After years of underinvestment, Bogota's transportation infrastructure is seriously outdated, with an undersized airport and clogged roadways that regularly bring traffic to a standstill. Exacerbating Bogotans' transportation frustrations is a scandal involving Mayor Samuel Moreno, who was suspended from office this month while investigators look into allegations of public works corruption and shoddy project management.

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Enrique Penalosa – who served as mayor from 1998 to 2001 – is a leading candidate to replace Mr. Moreno in elections this fall. He is currently president of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, a global think tank that promotes sustainable urban planning.

Mr. Penalosa's vision for the city involves investing in transportation and urban renewal, while staking its claim as a Latin American business hub. That includes continuing expansion of the TransMilenio, Bogota's bus-based rapid transit system.

While the city's physical capital needs work, the human capital is top-notch. "Our human resources are fantastic, the best," the former mayor said in an interview. "We really are world class and I think this is the most undiscovered Colombian resource."

However, the inability of many Colombians to work in English continues to be a problem, especially for multinational companies.

While English is common among the elite – many of whom went to school in the United States, Britain or Canada – it is noticeably absent among the middle class.

"This is our biggest handicap," Mr. Penalosa said. "To think that a Colombian can be successful in the world without knowing English is to imagine that an Arhuaco Indian can be successful in Colombia without speaking Spanish."

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The executive director of Invest in Bogota, Adriana Suarez, said there is a push at all levels of education to expand the teaching of English to meet the demands of a global economy. The agency has targeted several key areas for foreign investment, including business-process outsourcing, tourism, and oil field and mining services – all of which need bilingual employees.

At a recent graduation ceremony of the Talk to the World program, several international companies set up recruiting tables to interview graduates.

One of those companies was Convergys Corp., a U.S.-based leader in business outsourcing that recently opened its first operation in Bogota. Convergys has hired 1,000 people to staff a help centre in the city, and has more demand than it can handle at that facility, said Jorge Robledo, the company's Miami-based vice-president for Latin American operations.

He said Convergys would immediately hire another 1,000 people if it could find candidates with sufficient English skills, and he envisages an eventual work force of 20,000 in Colombia.

Oil field service giants such as Halliburton Co. and Schlumberger Ltd. have also opened offices in the city, as has Calgary-based Calmena Energy Services Inc., which has a 10-person office in Bogota and two rigs operating in the country.

Calmena's Colombia director, Andrew Jones, speaks little Spanish and depends heavily on his bilingual staff, whom he hired after arriving in the country last August. (Mr. Jones said Invest in Bogota was a huge help, providing not only relocation advice but market intelligence on the energy service sector.) So far, he is impressed with his Bogota team.

"Our long-term success here totally depends on training up the Colombians," Mr. Jones said. "And they're great. They just pick up everything and turn it into gold."

But to ensure long-term growth and prosperity, Bogota has to come to terms with an underground economy estimated to be as much as 50 per cent of the total economy. With payroll taxes at more than 50 per cent of wages, the informal sector extends far beyond the usual criminal pursuits to include services, construction and other mainstream businesses.

"The city is performing well and has the potential to be the driver of growth of Colombia and to contribute significantly for Latin America," said Andres Cadena, a director with McKinsey & Co.'s Bogota office.

"But in order to really provide productivity growth and employment of quality, we have to solve the informality trap."

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About the Author
Global Energy Reporter

Shawn McCarthy is an Ottawa-based, national business correspondent for The Globe and Mail, covering a global energy beat. He writes on various aspects of the international energy industry, from oil and gas production and refining, to the development of new technologies, to the business implications of climate-change regulations. More

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