Q COSTA RICA – In the 19th century, the customs house (aduana in Spanish) here brimmed with the imported wares that first helped this tiny nation become part of the wider world economy.
During a balmy weekend last month, the old brick and iron warehouse in San Jose was packed again, this time with multilingual financial analysts and software developers attending a job fair organized by Costa Rica’s foreign-investment promotion agency, CINDE.
Among the opportunities that lured some of the 8,300 job-seekers was the possibility of a job with Amazon.com — a company that, since 2008, has morphed into a major employer in Costa Rica with more than 4,000 workers.
“I buy stuff from them all the time,” said Ginette Morales, a 35-year-old MBA graduate with experience in the financial-services industry, who was among dozens milling about Amazon’s booth at the job fair.
Amazon’s investment, and that of other multinational companies, helped make Costa Rica an important provider of a broad suite of corporate services for global firms, who employ local software engineers, accountants and lawyers as well as customer-support and back-office staff.
It’s a relationship that’s worked well for the tiny Central American nation — a formerly agrarian country that has leveraged a skilled population to carve itself a profitable niche in the world economy. It also helps corporate behemoths tap into a global vein of talent, often at a cost that’s half the amount it is in the U.S.
The model illustrates the proliferation of cross-border supply chains that surged in two decades of nearly unfettered globalization. It’s a model, however, that’s being challenged by a sweeping tide of economic populism that helped put Donald Trump in the White House.
The change in the U.S. political mood, and Trump’s willingness to use social media to lambaste companies he perceives as job exporters, has prompted many firms, including Amazon, to focus attention on how many American jobs they’re creating.
Costa Rican officials acknowledge the changing landscape in Washington, D.C., and understand how U.S. companies might become sensitive to it. “Nobody wants in this moment to exhibit themselves … and earn a tweet,” Costa Rica’s foreign-trade minister Alexander Mora, said in an interview.
But Mora, who estimates that about 27,000 Costa Ricans work in corporate services related to the U.S. market, argues that this sector of the economy is likely to grow. That’s partly because of strong links with the United States, but also because Costa Rica offers skills in short supply in the U.S. labor market, such as software development.
Also, on the lower end of the skill set, many technical – and customer-support roles at U.S. companies operating here are geared to serve Spanish – and Portuguese-speaking markets in Latin America and elsewhere.
“Our services sector is very complementary with that of the U.S.,” Mora said.
Angel Gonzalez, reporting in the Seattle Times, writes the Seattle-based Amazon declined to comment for this story and wouldn’t provide access to its Costa Rica facilities.
But last September, before Trump’s election, Amazon was trumpeting the addition of 1,500 jobs in Costa Rica, bringing its local head count there to 5,500.
That’s less than 2 percent of Amazon’s total worldwide workforce of 341,400, but the company’s Costa Rican payroll makes it a big fish in this country of less than five million. According to government data compiled in November by El Financiero, Amazon was the fifth-largest private employer in Costa Rica.
Alejandro Filloy, the company’s chief in Costa Rica, in December told El Financiero that Amazon’s operations have become increasingly complex and now include software developers as well as risk analysts that investigate fraud in retail transactions.
The company also has a team of seller-support analysts who help independent merchants navigate Amazon’s online marketplace.
Amazon’s Costa Rica staff provide human-resources support for its U.S., Europe and Latin American operations, fill strategic roles in defining the customer experience in Mexico and Brazil, and include cloud-computing personnel, according to El Financiero report.
A recent look at Amazon’s job website showed 66 open positions in Costa Rica, ranging from content developers to financial analysts and French-speaking fraud- investigation specialists.
Amazon’s culture is evident here in the groups of blue-badge-wearing employees, some of them conversing in American English, that stream out of buildings at two locations in the San José metropolitan area. One of the buildings sports a big sign that proclaims, in English, “We are hiring!”
“Talent is what we have to offer,” Filloy told El Financiero. “We started with services of lower added value, and we responded with world-class quality.”
Article originally appeared on Seattletimes.com. Read the full report here.