Saturday, November 25, 2006

Once again: Who will be the first Filipino astronaut?

Yes, I probably deserve to be shot for asking this "senseless" question.

And how could I even consider it in the midst of the poverty hobbling this nation; in the face of our never-ending political bickering; in the grip of bloody battles against Muslim and communist terrorists? Aren't these issues more important?

Of course they are.

But doesn't the Filipino deserve a chance to reach for the stars, literally and figuratively? Doesn't he deserve a chance to shine in a historic adventure?

The first Filipino in space will make us proud to be Filipino. Just by riding the US Space Shuttle or a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS), he or she will become the proud symbol of the great and wonderful things our race can accomplish if it set its mind to it.

Japan is the only Asian nation to have consistently sent persons into space and this is courtesy of the Americans. Although Japan has its own space program, its new H-2A heavy lift launch vehicle isn't configured for manned space flight.

Dr. Mamoru Mohri was the first Japanese to travel into space aboard a Space Shuttle. He was a payload specialist on the STS (Space Transport Shuttle) Endeavor.

Mohri's historic trip lasted eight days (Sept. 12-20, 1992). He returned to outer space in February 2000, again as a crewman of the Endeavor.

In December 1997, Dr. Takao Doi became the first Japanese to walk in space. Koichi Wakata, a crewman on the STS Discovery in October 2000, was the first Japanese to visit the ISS.

All three are members of the astronaut corps of the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA), that country's equivalent of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASDA has since been renamed JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

And in September 2006, Malaysia announced it had selected its first two astronauts (or "angkasawan" in Bahasa Malaysia). Dr. Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, an orthopedist, will fly to the ISS on board a Soyuz in September 2007.

He and another astronaut, Dr. Faiz Khaleed, a dentist, were selected after a nationwide search joined by thousands of Malaysians.

Are these feats possible for the Filipino? Of course, they are.

The shrewd Russians might yet win the honor of taking the first Filipino into space, however. But the hefty Russian price tag of US$20 million (P1 billion!) for a round trip to the ISS will make us think again (as did Lance Bass' backers).

Our government however can try to convince the Russians to give us the ride gratis in the name of international friendship and cooperation.

If we go by the history of the US space program our first astronaut will most likely be a civilian, a degree holder in science or engineering, a possessor of special knowledge, a team player and one who is healthy, fit and English-speaking.

It would indeed be appropriate if our first astronaut could be a scientist or a technician. That would send a powerful message to the world that Filipinos aren't simply a race of exportable blue-collar workers.

There is no guarantee our first astronaut will be a he, however. He might be a she since women are about as tough as men are in space.

It would be magnificent to see the Philippine flag on the uniform of our first astronaut as he is presented to the world press. It would be fantastic to see him floating weightless inside the ISS as he goes about his job, and to hear him greet us in Filipino and in our other dialects.

That would be the ultimate high in patriotism. The first Filipino astronaut in space would become a hero and deservedly so since the selection process that chose him was geared toward selecting the best possible.

There should be other Filipino astronauts in future earth orbit or interplanetary flights. They will be real-life heroes that the Filipino nation cannot have enough of.

How does the Philippines stand in space? Quite nobly considering her limited resources.

Although we have one in-orbit satellite, Agila-2, this spacecraft is one of the best Asian communications satellites. It mainly serves the interests of Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. (PLDT), its owner, but is taking on a steady stream of other Asian customers. Agila-2 has a useful life of 15 years. It carries C-band and Ku-band transponders that transmit voice, Internet, broadcast and data communications. It was launched into orbit by a Chinese rocket in 1997.

In Asia, China, India and Japan are the leading space powers but their space programs will be unable to ferry Filipino astronauts into space this decade. Asians, however, will have a lot to cheer about as China and India prepare to make history in the coming years.

In 2003, China sent its first man into space and is expected to send its second manned mission in 2007. China intends to dominate the New Space Race against the USA.

Its ambitious space exploration program sees its "yuhangyuans" (astronauts) stepping onto the Moon in 2024.

To prepare for this, China is to launch its first Moon Probe in 2007. The "Chang'e 1" probe will record images of the lunar surface, study lunar microwaves, the distribution of usable metals and the thickness of lunar soil for one year.

In 2012, China plans to land a rover or rovers on the Moon surface. From 2017 to 2020, Chinese Moon rovers will return samples of lunar soil to China for scientific and economic study.

There has to be a place for the Philippines in this renewed push into space.

Now what is the Filipino word for astronaut?

Friday, November 24, 2006

Golden Finns and Golden Filipinos

Ah, Finland.

Land of Nokia; birthplace of Armi Kuusela (remember her?); the fastest aging developed country on the planet--and a shining example of how important "golden citizens" are to a country's economic growth.

Finland and the Philippines represent opposite sides of the workforce coin. In the Philippines, the country's slow growth is crimping employment, especially among elder citizens. Finland is also battling against slow growth, but one caused by an ageing society and a rapidly shrinking workforce.

Finland's problems with its graying workforce strike at the core of its economic status as a first world nation. The Finnish workforce is expected to plunge 40% by 2020--unless elderly workers are convinced to forego early retirement.

Since Finland's workforce stood at just 2.3 million persons in a population of 5.2 million (2004), the loss of over 900,000 workers in 14 years' time is bound to gag its economy.

Finland's solution to its crisis of gray was to urge its elder citizens to keep on working, a hard sell in a country where a Finn could chose early retirement when he hit 53.

But golden citizens were sold on the idea, thanks to government and private sector partnership in "age management" programs that sought to improve the health, productivity and motivation of older workers, and to generous incentive packages.

In 2005, Finland increased pension benefits by as much as 40% for citizens who delay retirement until 65 and beyond.

The success of the effort to check the shrinking of Finland's workforce can be gleaned from current data. Golden Finns from 55-64 years old now account for 50% of the workforce compared to 36% in the mid-1990s.

Finns now work until 59 compared to 57 in 1997. And most Finns expect to retire at 63.

The large number of employed elder Finns is also due, in part, to a law that compels private companies to shoulder the pensions of 50 to 64 year olds if an employee retires before he's 65.

Studies show that age management programs have increased the productivity of Golden Finns; reduced illness and increased motivation. Surprisingly, elder Finns have the lowest absentee rate among all workforce age groups.

Finland's experience proves that elder employees are as productive--or even more productive--than their younger counterparts. It also disproves the argument that it's good public policy to entice employees into early retirement so that younger persons get a shot at jobs.

Early retirement only forces younger workers to shoulder more of the financial burden needed to pay for the old age pensions and social security benefits of their elders. This wouldn't be necessary if elders kept on working.

The practice of keeping elder workers in the labor force is strong in employee-starved European countries. It is particularly widespread in the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Finland), which are all struggling against shrinking labor pools.

But Finland isn't a big destination for Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs). Not even 100 Filipinos were deployed to Finland from 1998 to 2004. Less than 2,000 OFWs went to the Nordic countries during the same period.

The Philippines' golden work force should be as "loved" as its Finnish equivalent. But with the Philippines' unemployment rate hovering from 7% to 10% and a huge labor force of 35 million persons, it's unlikely that Golden Filipinos will find renewed employment or government pampering easy to come by.

Today, however, it's Philippine call centers that want to hire Golden Filipinos. This for the simple reason that the English speaking pool of younger Filipinos is almost tapped out.

The booming business process outsourcing (BPO) industry might also need elder Filipinos. BPO demands skilled and experienced people to take charge of "backroom" business operations outsourced to the Philippines.

These backroom operations include finance, accounting, payroll processing, human resources, insurance, engineering, biotech, healthcare, multimedia, research and development, design and ICT.

The 40 operational BPOs provide administrative, finance and accounting services. These companies employed some 15,000 people in 2004 and earned revenues of US$100 million, according to the Board of Investments.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Act naturally

(Published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, 2006)

IF I WERE a three-eyed alien channel surfing Philippine TV from a starship, I'd say this country consists mostly of teenagers who spend their waking hours either falling madly in love or vivisecting other people with gusto.

That's the impression you get from watching Pinoy programs. Your eye food consists of "fantaseryes" and fairy tales about that fantasy called "true" love.

And the stars of these programs are teenagers. Not a 30-or 40-something among them. 20-somethings? Sometimes.

Teen power on Pinoy TV is easy to understand. The teen market is huge. Teen viewership creates money.

And savvy stations are hardnosed market exploiters. There's no other way for them to make gazillions on the cheap.

With both eyes on the almighty bottom line, savvy stations churn out pointless programs featuring good looking teens (the whiter, the better) pretending to sing, dance and act. It's what the teen market wants, they tell themselves.

Let's give the teen market the rich boy meets poor girl gimmick or vice versa. Let's bling the show with CGI (computer generated images) special effects.

Let's give the teen heroes magical powers. Don't forget the badass swords and the cool armor.

Better yet, let's make them rulers of Neverland. Michael Jackson won't mind. He's broke.

And these suddenly famous teens love it. They're on nationwide TV. They've got screaming fans. They make tons more money than they did when they crewed for Jollibee.

And all they've got to do is act naturally.

But typecasting teenagers as either dumbos or bimbos in tacky tearjerker roles is an insult to these youngsters. These teenagers could actually become role models and great entertainers--if given good and intelligent roles.

Yet, producers claim silly roles are what the market wants, and have been doing so ad nauseam.

Today's star teens are the future of Philippine TV. Acting naturally shouldn't cut it if Pinoy TV has ambitions of equaling quality programs from Japan, Taiwan and Korea.

Acting smart should be the norm. This will, however, need stories written by more mature scriptwriters and creative vision from more mature directors.

And producers know these two vital ingredients in making Pinoy TV truly world class will cost them millions. That's more money than they care to spend.

But someone's got to start along this rough road because Pinoy TV's only alternative is staying trapped in a time warp where silly plots and wooden acting harken back to the silent movies of 1906.

It's 2006 and it would be a sad shame if the only laudable improvement between then and now were the CGI.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Advantage English

When I was Grade 5 back in 1965, we had a "Speak English" campaign at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) Elementary School.

English was big in the 60s. It was the medium of instruction in schools. English programs dominated prime time TV and the movies.

My school's "Speak English" campaign fined violators 5-centavos for every spoken Tagalog word. Student "sheriffs" were assigned to enforce the campaign and arrest violators.

Don't laugh but 5-centavos was a really big deal back then. Jeepney fare was 10 centavos; pupils rode free if they stood inside the jeepney or if they made "kalong" (sat on another person's lap).

A bottle of Cosmos (now Sarsi) cost 5-centavos; Coke, 10-centavos (or was it 7-centavos).

Being comfortable with English, I had no problems with the campaign until one day.

I was playing tag with one of my classmates. After vainly trying to catch him, I gave up exasperated and screamed "Mansanas!" His family name was Meneses and I jokingly called him "Mansanas."

Unfortunately one of the student sheriffs heard me as I screamed "Mansanas," which is the Tagalog word for apple.

He "arrested" me and took me to the principal. I told the principal that "Mansanas" was my nickname for Meneses, my classmate.

The principal said "Mansanas" was still a Tagalog word and could I now hand over 5-centavos. I did so with a heavy heart. On the way home, I sat on my best friend's lap to make up for my lost 5 centavos.

This mishap didn't make me dislike Filipino. I love our language.

It did, however, force me to ask a difficult question: Is English more important than Filipino?

My father, Johnny Villasanta, then an editor for an English-language magazine, said English is an advantage. I'd understand this when I grew up.

He reminded me that he spoke English, Filipino, Spanish and Ibanag, as did his father. I spoke only English and Filipino.

He urged me to consider learning Chinese because he believed China would become capitalist one day. And this was in 1965!

"English is an advantage." That made sense to me. But I never did get around to learning Chinese.

For English to resurrect today, however, it will have to thrive in supportive school and home environments. That environment was present in the 1960s when knowledge of English was a skill to be respected.

The pervasiveness of English in the 1960s was acceptable to Philippine society, dominated as it was by the generations that were schooled during the American occupation.

The generation of the 1940s and 1950s hold sway over Philippine society and these people were English schooled. It shouldn't be difficult to resurrect English given this fact.

Schools can always hold "Speak English" campaigns or set aside "Speak English" days. They can also do one better by resurrecting the "Spelling Bees" so popular in the 1960s.

What is more important now, however, is to remove the stigma attached to English as a language of middle class homes.

It is a very remote hope that English will ever take root among the poor. To the poor, English remains a language to be ridiculed; a language of the rich and "mayabang." "Spokening dollar" will remain an epithet.

The future of English as a thriving language rests with today's middle class. Its mothers and fathers, schooled in the 1960s and 70s when English was still respectable, must find the courage to push English at home.

It isn't necessary to speak in English every day. Parents can encourage their children to read English stories or watch English channels on either free to air TV or cable. Programs that educate and inform should be at the top of the list.

Not all our children will take to English. Only a few will, but it is these few who stand to profit from the rewards proffered by a command of spoken and written English.

Our children's workplace will be dominated by information technology (IT) and IT enabled services (ITES). English is the world language of IT.

Their workplace will be dominated by the health and wellness industries, including medical tourism. All these industries will demand Filipinos competent in spoken and written English.

And, of course, the Overseas Filipino Worker will remain a giant in their workplace. More and more of these workers are professionals and managers. English is the world language of management and the professions.

For our children, a command of English is more than an advantage. It's a matter of survival. We should prepare them for this fight.

Loyalty: it's a tango

One of the local oil majors--an "old age" company in today's digital jargon--was once noted for its employee loyalty.

Its long service awardees were so numerous they formed an association, many of whose members went on to do contractual work for the company when they retired.

That was then, in the 1970s and 1980s, when retiring from your company after 25 or more years of service was a smart career goal for employees. They called that employee loyalty.

A fair number of companies were loyal to their employees and vice versa. That was a great win-win situation.

Today, well, loyalty seems to be a significant casualty of the information age. And this isn't solely the fault of employees.

"Downsizing," "rightsizing" or whatever euphemisms companies conjure up for that stab in the back called massive employee layoffs probably triggered employee disenchantment with companies as institutions worthy of their loyalty.

Technology's short life span also seems to have been carried over to the workplace. Employees of information and communications technology (ICT) companies hardly see themselves retiring from their companies, which might soon be "obsoleted" by newer technology.

What we have today are old age companies downsizing to become "more agile" in a hurry up marketplace and new age companies trying to make their millions fast before new technologies or paradigm shifts snuff them out.

Not fertile ground on which to sow the seeds of employee loyalty among the 20-something generation.

Taking root
But loyalty’s still out there and appears to be taking root in call centers, today's hot employment ticket. Call centers are young (less than one decade old) companies well known for their high salaries.

There are some 120 call centers locally, many of them up and running--and frantically searching for agents. Just look at the want ads every Sunday.

But with attrition rates in call centers becoming more of a problem and the replacement pool still shallow, new emphasis is being placed on efforts to make agents stay put for as long as possible.

It costs a company a lot of money and time to train agents to required proficiency levels and a company has to recoup that investment in the form of revenue growth.

Call centers do realize it costs less to maintain veteran employees than it does to recruit and recruit new employees. Problem is that good help is really hard to keep in call centers.

Poaching and job-hopping are major challenges facing call centers and, obviously, aren't conducive to employee loyalty. And you've got these problems because of the relatively good pay at call centers: starting salaries today are at P20,000 compared to P16,000 in 2004.

The rewards for those who remain loyal to their call center can be astounding, however. A call center president I interviewed said some of his senior executives make over P100,000 monthly.

Many of these people, said the president, have been with the company the longest. The company opened for business just four years ago.

A two-edged sword
A high salary is a two-edged sword, however. It can keep a loyal employee from jumping ship but won't stop someone who knows he can earn more by constantly job-hopping. So it's a race to keep the veterans loyal and to find replacements for those who leave.

Newbies, however, are also in short supply. Some reports say call centers now hire only one or two out of every 100 applicants.

This country produces about 400,000 college graduates annually. Probably 15% to 20% of these youngsters qualify as passable English speakers.

That's 60,000 to 80,000 candidates to meet the annual needs of 120 call centers. A 1% to 3.5% take up rate means that from 600 to 2,800 candidates get to be hired.

Add to the exacting hiring standards a creeping churn rate (call centers are said to be losing from 10% to 30% of their agents per year) and you see the case for encouraging employee loyalty. Industry data show 100,000 agents were employed by call centers in 2005.

Sitting on their hands until the Class of 2017 hits the employment line is a non-option for call centers. This will be the first generation to fully benefit from English's return as a medium of instruction in 2003.

These kids will have spent 14 years in English-friendly school environments, so call centers will have before them a deeper and better quality candidate pool.

BPO: the next generation
The big problem is that many call centers might not be around by this time. Many would have moved up the value chain in the "business process outsourcing" (BPO) industry.

Higher level BPO, however, isn't dependent on people who speak with American accents.

It demands knowledge workers to service the backroom operations of foreign clients. These operations include finance, accounting, payroll processing, healthcare, human resources, insurance, engineering, biotech, multimedia, research and development, design and ICT.

Credit card or stock trade processing, finance and administration, indirect procurement and human resources are among the jobs being now being farmed out to local BPO firms.

The government sees a BPO take off in 2006 and expects BPO revenues to soon outstrip those of call centers.

The shift towards BPO, however, means that academic and professional excellence will soon replace verbal excellence. BPO firms will need a lot of smart kids in the future. And these BPO employees will probably face the same challenges to loyalty as do their call center counterparts today.

One hopes that by this time, both factors in the loyalty equation--the company and the employee--will have re-learned the "old age" moral that loyalty is always a "quid pro quo" arrangement.

It will always take two to tango. Employers will have to be loyal to their employees before employees can be loyal to their employers.

You can't dance the loyalty tango any other way.

Thursday, November 16, 2006


There's hardly any local employment for anyone in his 40s. Scanning the want ads will show you just how forgotten middle-aged people are in this information society.

The ads want 20-somethings for jobs in call centers, BPO (business process outsourcing), IT, nursing and the service industries. Only rarely do you see ads targeting 40- and 50-year olds.

The last ad for 40-year olds I saw was for a cook at Boracay. Ads for senior managers are few and far between.

There are simply too many young guys competing for too few jobs. These jobs also seem so scarce, however, that you've got IT graduates frying patties at McDonald's or swabbing floors at Chowking. You've also got doctors turning into nurses.

The government calls this underemployment, a condition that is, however, far better than unemployment. It's today's take on that Chinese adage, "Half of something is better than nothing."

So, it's half of something for the young 'uns and nothing at all for the older 'uns.

This stunning turn of events means that "middle-agers" who can't find work will have to be supported by their children. There seems to be no other alternative since dad's skills (honed in the 1970s and 80s) are almost Mesozoic in today's job market.

If dad's out of work, it seems that junior with his hot college degree stands a far better chance of finding a job than dad. So junior or big sis take dad's place as the family wage earner, either here or as an OFW (Overseas Filipino Worker).

That's a huge burden for kids. Children will have to become breadwinners when their still productive parents are in their 40s. In effect, children will become their parents' parents.

Dad, on the other hand, is reduced to a pensioner (courtesy of his children) or a nanny to the grandkids along with mom.

This is not the world as it should be. It's the world turned upside down. And it's all because there are too many Pinoys fighting for the few hot jobs that didn't exist a decade ago.

Is this the real 21st century workplace?

That still leaves us with the problem of what to do with unemployed 40-, 50- and 60-year olds who want to work, who have loads of experience and who know how to lead and manage.

If this were the USA, these "-agers" can go work for Wal-Mart at paltry wages. Or they can flash fatherly and motherly smiles at guests as employees of Disney World.

This is the Philippines, however, and I am hard pressed to recall a hot business or industry apart from call centers that will employ "-agers" as readily as it would 20-year olds.

There has to be a way to further harness the productivity and talent of this community.