Monday, July 20, 2009

Answering the call for jobs

by Duncan Adams | | 981-3324

Y'all come.

Southern twang works just fine -- unless the accent is heavier than a pickup load of grits and the caller ends up longing to speak to a customer service agent in Bangladesh.

Many callers find a drawl charming, said Robert O'Leary, site director for the StarTek call center in Lynchburg.

Western and Southside Virginia host clusters of call centers that collectively employ thousands of people -- offering decent to high hourly wages with benefits. And even in the midst of the recession, many, if not most, are hiring workers to take customers' catalog orders and calls on service, billing and technical problems, to collect debts or to sell services.

What gives?

It's not just about accents.

Numerous forces influence the placement of call centers and their tendency toward prodigious hiring. The industry employs an estimated 7.5 million people nationwide, is infamous for stressful working conditions and consistently notches high rates of employee turnover.

Call center expert Bruce Belfiore said companies use sophisticated site selection models.

"If you have sort of a semiurban or semirural area with fairly high unemployment, an available work force, two-year colleges and fairly low labor costs, you are ripe for call centers," said Belfiore, chief executive officer of BenchmarkPortal, a consulting firm for the industry.

Today, insiders refer to call centers as "contact centers," a phrase that incorporates e-mail inquiries and live Internet chats. Employees are called "agents."

Broadly defined as information technology jobs, call center employment, if nothing else, helps move the region's economy away from traditional manufacturing industries in decline.

Low labor costs

Liz Povar is director of business development for the Virginia Economic Development Partnership in Richmond. The partnership reaches out to companies searching for sites for new call centers. VEDP frequently touts Western and Southside Virginia as "valid and viable" places to do business, Povar said.

She said companies value rural and semirural areas for several reasons: the likelihood of a steady, stable work force and less turnover, comparatively lower wage and real estate costs and the potential to hire members of an employee's extended family. Povar said the ongoing deployment of broadband infrastructure in rural Virginia has helped attract the industry.

O'Leary said state and local incentives also encouraged StarTek to choose Lynchburg.

Once one contact center lands in a community, others tend to follow. More here.

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