ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Bernard Smith is deciding where to spend the rest of his life, and at the top of his list is Rio Rancho.
For one, he said he believes the cost of living there to be roughly comparable to his current location of Wichita, Kan. More importantly, Rio Rancho announced in June it will soon be the site of 900 Safelite AutoGlass call center jobs and Smith said he considers himself something of a “call center guru.”
“I’ve worked with Sitel, Convergys, Sprint,” said Smith, who was most recently employed in the restaurant industry and gave his age as “we’re not going to go there.” “I like the environment and the wages are usually decent.”
Plus, Smith said, if Safelite doesn’t work out, he can drop off his résumé at several other call centers: Comcast, Verizon and T-Mobile among them, all just a few miles away.
According to Dallas-based advisory firm Site Selection Group, there are at least 28 call centers – the industry’s preferred term is “contact center” – in the Albuquerque metropolitan area. Within medium-sized metro areas, Albuquerque is among the top ten with the highest call center saturation. These businesses employ about 12,000 people – roughly the same number as Presbyterian Healthcare Services, one of the state’s largest employers.
And according to the Sandoval Economic Alliance, the majority of call center jobs in the area are economic base jobs: positions that export their goods or services out of state, thereby bringing new wealth into the state instead of circulating existing money.
Yet call centers sometimes come with certain negative associations: stressful office environments, highly standardized work and unstable, low-paying jobs. Rosemary Batt, a professor at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said the quality of these jobs varies greatly within the industry, and even within companies.
“A call center is simply a container, one filled with technology-mediated communications,” said Batt. “What you do with that apparatus is another question.”
In the Albuquerque metro area, as elsewhere, call center work represents a diverse range of activities. At Fidelity Investments, workers, among other things, help customers with their retirement plans. At Canon ITS, employees provide technical support for Canon products. At third-party call centers, such as Alorica and Convergys, employees do any number of customer-management functions depending on the clients contracted with the business at the time. Then there’s the technology: In today’s call center environment, communicating with a customer can mean talking over the phone, emailing, sending text messages or using a chat application on a computer, thus the preference for “contact center” over “call center.”
Industry advisers such as Site Selection Group include many different types of businesses in their definition of call centers. Their call center concentration ranking, for example, includes customer service operations, technical support and claims processing because the jobs are similar enough that they affect the local economy in a similar way.
Most companies use a specific set of criteria when evaluating possible locations for a new call center. Brian O’Mara, Safelite’s vice president of client service delivery, said the company chose Rio Rancho based on median household income, size of the employment pool, similar jobs in the market and the competitive landscape with regard to wage structure. Safelite was also attracted to the number of bilingual individuals in the metro.
The region’s demographic profile is likely to continue attracting call centers to the area, said Tiffany Avery, a spokesperson for the Sandoval Economic Alliance.
“These jobs are an incredibly important part of our economy,” said Avery. “The biggest problem we have is the perception around them.”
Rebranding the call center
What’s the best way to cook 600 weiners without a grill? The next day was Hot Dog Day and Shannan Igan said the issue was weighing heavily on her mind.
“I was thinking I could just throw them in a Crock-Pot,” she said. “But that’s a lot of hot dogs.”
Igan is a full-time Culture Champion at Alorica’s call center in Albuquerque. Her job description, according to a job posting for the same position at another Alorica site, includes “being awesome at karaoke” and “maintaining a seriously sweet work environment.”
The position is the embodiment of an industrywide effort to rebrand the business into something that looks more like a Silicon Valley startup where most employees happen to be on the phone. At Convergys, punk music blasts through the main production floor, which is painted various shades of neon. At Comcast’s all-bilingual call center, a $7 million building renovation gave way to an office with a gym, snack bar and a “wellness room” where employees can video conference with a doctor. Multiple centers have basketball courts and it is difficult to find one that does not have a Crazy Hat Day. Most entry-level call center jobs in the metro area require only a high school diploma or GED and some sort of demonstrated ability to work with people. Third-party call centers with specialized clients may hire employees with certain skill sets; Convergys, for example, recently posted a job seeking candidates with previous experience working in the health care industry for a client that they will assist with claims processing. Tech support positions typically require general computer knowledge and some require an associate degree.
While benefits for full-time positions tend to be good – medical insurance, a 401(k) and some form of tuition assistance is fairly standard – wages can stagnate in the $10-$12 range, with slightly more for bilingual employees.
For positions requiring a more advanced skill set, the pay can be significantly higher. Fidelity’s entry-level Albuquerque employees, for example, make between $15 and $16 an hour, according to the employment website Glassdoor.
Jamie Ann Utley, a former Alorica employee, said she found the company’s perks to be poor compensation for what she perceived to be a highly monitored job with few opportunities for advancement.
“There was a lot of pizza and few promotions,” said Utley.
Ken Muche, Alorica’s director of global public relations, said 70 percent of the company’s supervisors, managers and directors started their careers on the call center floors.
The work itself can be monotonous and stressful. Sarai Harris, a Comcast call center employee in the customer retention department, said she liked her work, but said it could be “very fast-paced.”
Then there’s Southwest Airlines, which took more than 35 million phone calls at its seven domestic call centers last year. On the day a Journal reporter visited the Albuquerque site, employees were working mandatory overtime hours because of the high volume of incoming calls.
And yet, in an industry where turnover sometimes exceeds 100 percent annually at some sites, Southwest’s Albuquerque call center employees have an average tenure of about a decade. In contrast, the average Safelite call center employee stays about 2.8 years, which the company said is considered high in the industry.
Southwest, one of the few unionized call centers in the state, offers a perk no other local call center offers: free air travel for employees and their families. Jenny Cervantez, the Albuquerque center leader, said she often has to remove job postings a few days after she posts them because the response is too overwhelming.
Building a better job
Batt said that research shows the best call center jobs are ones that integrate “high involvement” or “high performance” work practices. These jobs have extensive training programs for employees, allow workers to use their discretion, instead of simply reading off a script or having to refer all decisions to a supervisor, and are rewarding in terms of compensation and job security. Not only are these jobs more stable, said Batt, but also the companies that offer them see higher sales revenue than their counterparts.
The call center jobs in the Albuquerque metro area vary greatly on Batt’s rubric. With regards to initial training, for example, Alorica offers a six-week program, while Comcast offers an eight- to 12-week program.
Batt said if a community is interested in raising the standard of living for its workers, it needs to make attracting the very best call centers a priority.
“Bad call center jobs are penny-wise and pound-foolish for everyone involved,” said Batt. “It’s up to the local community to create an economic development policy that attracts better call centers to the area.”
One thing that is clear: There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of applicants. On a sweltering July day, a block away from the Telephone Museum of New Mexico, Star and Mario Dominguez waited in the lobby of Molina Healthcare to apply for jobs at the company’s call center. Their financial situation had changed, Star Dominguez said, and a friend had told them about a job fair at Molina. When asked if they thought the jobs would be good ones, they both said they didn’t know, but they hoped so.
“We have a baby to support,” she said with a weak smile.
They sat in silence for the next several minutes awaiting their interview.