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Teleservices: Inbound or outbound calls offering customer service or customer support. Although some companies encourage agents to sell products or services during phone calls, making a sale is usually not the primary focus of the call, as it is with telemarketers.
Teleservices: It's the fastest-growing industry in Tucson and among those exploding in North America and around the world.
Already between 6 million and 7 million agents work in some 48,000 call centers based in the United States handling inbound calls for businesses and government agencies.
With 16,000 agents in Tucson, a number predicted to double by the year 2003, questions swirl regarding an industry sometimes called the ``sweatshops of the '90s.''
Searching for quality
Good teleservice jobs call for skilled workersBy RuthAnn Hogue
The Arizona Daily Star
It's a fact: Tucson is seen as a call center mecca of the future.
With 16,000 teleservice agents, we're up there with call center hotbeds such as Albuquerque; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Nashville, Tenn. That number is expected to climb to 35,000 employees by 2003.
``Tucson is on the map,'' said Fred Gould, one of the city's original call center managers. ``Everyone is looking for a place to go.''
But what kind of future is continued industry growth likely to bring?
Much depends, analysts said, on the quality of call centers that come here and the ability of the local labor pool to adapt to higher ``skill sets.''
The ``quality'' of call centers is measured by wage scale and working conditions.
Centers that provide technical support for computer or software companies and those that run medical help desks typically offer the highest starting pay. They also tend to be more lenient with their agents.
Agents who work in such centers command higher pay and respect because their skills are above those required of the average customer service representative, said Art Quinn, a Minneapolis-based group manager of computer telephony integration for U S West.
Technical support representatives, for instance, might be in training for a month or more. They might have a mentor for up to six months. Those who have background in the field can climb the pay scale and corporate ladder quickly.
If Tucson is to take advantage of its status as a call center magnet, efforts must be made to attract more high-tech centers.
To make that happen, however, Tucson's workers must be willing to raise their skill levels to meet changing needs of a business closely tied to evolving technology.
Today, most Tucson call centers are non-technical. They offer customer service for companies such as United Parcel Service, AT&T and Sears.
A few provide service in the form of directory assistance, including Lucent and InfoNXX.
Others collect data, such as Opinion Research, set up appointments with insurance agents through Anderson Financial Network Inc., or take reservations for American Airlines or Greyhound Lines.
Jobs at this level don't require much training. Many of the call centers offer near-poverty-level wages, although agents at American Airlines start at $7 an hour and, over time, can earn up to $19.66 an hour.
``I will always go on record that call center work is extremely difficult, repetitive, monotonous and tedious,'' said Gould, regional manager for Greyhound in Arizona and Texas. ``People on the other end of the phone are less than courteous.''
Gould makes no apologies, however, for the quality of non-technical call center jobs.
``We have a lot of good folk out there. They are working, quite frankly. They are working,'' Gould said. ``And I think they appreciate the fact they are working.
``If those 16,000 jobs didn't exist, what would they be doing?'' he asked.
``They could wait tables, work in fast food or work in a call center. They are good entry-level or secondary jobs.''
Mayor sticks up for industryTwo government officials agree.
Tucson Mayor George Miller defended rapid growth in the local teleservice industry.
``It's obvious, with over 16,000 people working at it, it can't be the worst work in the world,'' Miller said. ``At the same time, it's something that fills a real need in terms of employment in this community.''
Miller said he would prefer high-tech job growth, but not everyone is cut out for high-tech jobs.
Mike Boyd, chairman of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, stopped short of defending call centers, but doesn't advocate them, either.
``I think they are probably better than nothing,'' Boyd said. ``I think we're not in a position to tell these folks they cannot come.''
Boyd said he's toured three call centers that offer technical support.
``It's not a sweatshop,'' he said. ``They have reasonable cubicles, clean working conditions and clean commissary areas.''
So, would he want his child to work in a call center?
``No,'' Boyd said.
``I think most parents want their kids to be doctors or engineers or whatever. However, if I had a son or daughter who didn't aspire to be a professional, I would want them to do something to put food on the table in a clean, safe environment.''
The Greater Tucson Economic Council, he said, is working hard to bring in high-tech jobs. The call centers have just sort of shown up. And the local labor pool has fallen in line.
``No one has a gun to their heads when they take these jobs,'' Boyd said. ``If people want to take those jobs, I guess that's their business.''
Many of the people who take call center jobs, however, are unqualified for anything else above minimum wage.
``Whose fault is that, though?'' Boyd said. ``I think we owe them a clean, safe environment in which to work. We sure don't owe them a high-paying job. That's up to the individual to better themselves and pursue it.''
Meanwhile, the jobs exist. And more are coming.
``It used to be worse''
Although Boyd dismissed the idea of call centers being ``electronic sweatshops,'' some would dispute his view.
``It used to be worse in that the call centers themselves weren't ergonomically correct and there was a lot of stress on the body,'' said Quinn, of U S West.
Much of that is changing.
Jon Anton of Purdue University's Center for Customer-Driven Quality points out that at one high-tech center (not in Tucson), a nurse visits a few times a week to give agents back massages.
``It's more of a concept that these people are fighting the war on the phones, and here is a relief you can look forward to at your cubicle.''
At some call centers, cubicles have been built to match human needs.
``If an agent gets tired of sitting, they can hit a button and the whole keyboard comes up,'' Anton said. ``They can get up, move around, hit a button and the whole thing goes down again.''
Anton said these are but a few tricks that can make agents more comfortable. The main reason agents quit, however, is high mental and emotional stress.
``It's a high-stress, fast-paced job,'' Quinn agreed.
``They are handling one situation and move quickly on to the next.''
Strict policies regarding attendance, dress codes and an agent's surroundings add to that stress.
As call centers move into the next century, such conditions might change.
Even then, said Paul Stockford of Cahners In-Stat Group in Scottsdale, the quality of call center jobs ``depends on whether you want full employment or not,'' since many centers offer part-time and seasonal work.
``If it's that vs. running the cash register at Macy's or digging ditches - it's inside, you wear nice clothes and there are career opportunities,'' Stockford said. ``You can move up.''
Even so, Stockford said he sees the future of call centers as anything but uncertain.
``Probably just the opposite is true,'' he said. ``It's a very bright future. . . . Try to attract as many call centers as you can. You've got the network, infrastructure, work force and right real estate with room for expansion and growth. Call centers can be a great contributor to the local economy.''
This series by Star business reporter RuthAnn Hogue is based on personal interviews with local agents and managers; state and national analysts and industry leaders; firsthand observations inside local call centers; 2 1/2 hours auditing a college course on call center management; current industry and academic reports; national periodical database searches; and extensive Internet searches.
How to comment
Readers are invited to comment on this ``Growing Pains'' series and the issues it raises about Tucson's teleservices industry.
Comments will appear in tomorrow's Star along with the next installment in the series. They may be edited for space constraints.