Tucson's New Economy

Improved call centers pay well, boost Tucson's high tech future

Benjie Sanders / Staff

Local industry leaders shown at the Teletech building include, from left, Paul Hawkins, call center manager for USA Relay Telecommunications; Barb Kjose, Teletech's site director; and Fred Gould, Mileage Plus Inc. general manager of customer service.

By Jonathan J. Higuera

The public perception of the teleservices industry looks something like this: rude, low-paid telemarketers calling the moment dinner is set on the table.

Some of those perceptions may have been true in the past, but that's no longer the case at most Tucson call centers, industry representatives maintain.

About 80 percent of the area's call centers handle only inbound calls, said Fred Gould, general manager of Mileage Plus Inc., which deals with United Airlines' frequent flyer program.

And starting pay for many call center workers is now $8 to $9 an hour - far more than the $5.30 to $6.50 an hour starting pay that was the norm just a few years ago.

"Labor rates have gone up significantly," Gould said. "It's now on par with or even better than other retail service jobs."

The industry's impact on Tucson extends far beyond jobs and telephone calls. Call centers need sophisticated phone lines, which are something the entire city enjoys, said Luci Ponticelli, vice president of recruitment at the Greater Tucson Economic Council.

So without call centers, Tucson would have less of the fiber optic infrastructure, capital equipment and telecommunications network systems needed for high-tech development, she said.

With some 32 call centers employing about 16,000 workers, call center workers make up about 5 percent of the area's total work force.

Three years ago, America Online had one call center here with 400 employees. Today the Dulles, Va.-based Internet provider has more than 1,000 workers here in three buildings, including 250 workers in promising technical development jobs.

Still, the industry battles perceptions that call center jobs aren't the ones Tucson wants or needs.

Industry representatives are working to change that image. One strategic move was to merge the old teleservices cluster into the information technology cluster. In one fell swoop, it became part of a formal organization with a paid executive director and dues-paying members, plus increased access to IT cluster resources. And it linked itself to an industry with a sparkling image.

"Our industry sees this as a much more focused way of doing business," said Paul Hawkins, head of the old teleservice cluster group and call center manager at USA Relay Telecommunications.

The old teleservices cluster was loosely organized, with no dues-paying members and no real access to any resources beyond the generosity of certain call center companies.

For their part, IT representatives saw the merger as a chance to build membership and incorporate an industry that is an intensive user of information technology.

"It's a pool of workers high-tech companies can draw on," said Todd Sander, the city's information technology director and co-chair of the Information Technology Association of Southern Arizona. "They are on the front lines of telecommunications infrastructure."

Many of the workers hired in the city's information technology department started in teleservices, Sander said.

One program seeking to foster that kind of career move is "Train to Gain," which started in January. The comprehensive program trains promising teleservice workers for entry-level information technology jobs.

So far, about 70 teleservice workers are participating in the program. For those workers who do make the jump, the financial payoff is handsome.

According to the state Department of Economic Security's 1999 employment survey, a customer service representative makes an average of $9.66 an hour and a telemarketer averages about $8.29 an hour. But a computer support specialist who provides technical assistance makes about $18.72 an hour.

Debbie Cross, vice president of Arizona Mail Order, which has about 600 workers in its call center, said she's seen many call center workers go on to other positions with the parent company, Fingerhut.

"We sell our company as a career path," she said. "You can move to positions within and outside the call center."

GTEC's Ponticelli has been recruiting call centers to Tucson since 1988. She said they usually fall into three categories: those that do telemarketing sales, those that receive calls for customer service support or toll-free information and those that offer high-end technical or financial services support.

"There is a perception in the marketplace that Tucson is saturated," she said. "Those that decide to come now will likely be more technical in nature."

There are several reasons behind Tucson's success in attracting call centers, said John Boyd, a Princeton, N.J.-based corporate relocation specialist who has studied the Tucson market.

"Tucson is a rather attractive location from a cost standpoint," he said. "You also have a growing labor market."

The city's disaster-free reputation helps, too, Boyd said.

"We look for locations that are well insulated from natural disasters," he said. "Tucson offers a good deal of insulation."

* Contact Star Business reporter Jonathan J. Higuera at 573-4104 or at higuera@azstarnet.com.

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Information Technology at a glance

Number of local companies:
1,200 (companies with an IT component)

Number of local employees:

$4 billion (for all companies with an IT component)

Info Tech Cluster links

  • The Information Technology Association of Southern Arizona

  • ITASA member directory

  • Community Information and Telecommunications Alliance

  • GTEC: Tucson's Information Technology Cluster

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