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Recession-proof: El Paso's call-center industry thriving-and hiring
[September 26, 2010]

Recession-proof: El Paso's call-center industry thriving-and hiring

Sep 26, 2010 (El Paso Times - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- El Paso unemployment has risen to 10 percent this year, but the El Paso call center industry, which has grown to be one of the city's largest private employers, has continued to hire people, even during the recession.

Several El Paso call centers -- or contact centers, as they are also known -- are trying to hire several hundred people.

Many of those jobs are tied to an almost continual turnover at some call centers, and some are tied to business expansion.

The industry slowed expansion during the recession, but it has grown steadily in El Paso in the past decade.

More than 13,600 people work in 33 El Paso call centers for 20 companies, according to data from the El Paso Regional Economic Development Corp. and from some of the companies.

Most of the facilities are traditional call centers, which take calls from customers of companies selling products and services, or which make sales pitches to people calling about products. A few are more sophisticated places where call takers deal with more-technical problems.

"We were not hurt by the recession. I think it has a lot to do with the type of clients we have," which include electric utility companies, a bank and wireless phone carriers -- businesses that have demand for customer service no matter what the economy -- said Richard Gutierrez, human resources director for GC Services. The Houston company has seven El Paso call centers with more than 1,900 employees.

GC Services hired 250 people in June and plans to hire 185 more by Oct. 23 because of increased business from a technology company, Gutierrez said.

Lorenzo Reyes, CEO of Workforce Solutions Upper Rio Grande, this area's public employment agency, said layoffs have occurred in the call-center industry, but, he said, it's creating jobs. That's important for El Paso, he said, especially because the unemployment rate is so high (10 percent in August).

"Call centers play an important role in hiring El Pasoans, and in helping the economy," Reyes said. Call centers provide people with "transferable skills" in customer service and sales that can be used in many other industries, he noted. But it's important that El Paso attract other types of industries, he said.

Much of El Paso's call-center growth came as new centers moved here. No major centers have opened in two years.

Alorica, a California company, opened the latest large call center. It opened an East Side center in early 2008 and employs about 1,400. Empire Today, which sells home improvements and home furnishings, and United Blood Services also opened small call centers in 2008.

Alorica last week held a job fair to fill 150 customer-service jobs that opened through normal turnover at its center, which takes customer calls from a wireless phone carrier.

"This is one of our largest centers in the country. It's very productive," said Danel Kuhlmann, an Alorica spokeswoman.

Alorica as a whole has grown substantially through the recent acquisition of two companies. It has about 20,000 employees in 34 locations around the world, Kuhlmann said.

"Most companies are downsizing, and we're seeing phenomenal growth," she said.

Bob Cook, president of the El Paso Regional Development Corp., or REDCo, said that the recession slowed call-center expansion, but that REDCo has seen an increase this year in companies looking for call-center locations. It's working with 19 call-center operators that have shown interest in this area -- and 10 of those are new to the list this year.

REDCo doesn't actively recruit call centers because they don't fall into the four industries it recruits, and many centers don't have the wage levels or job skill requirements that REDCo is seeking, Cook said.

"If we find out a high-end center is looking for a location, then we will aggressively recruit them," Cook said. A high-end center has wages higher than at traditional call centers and has jobs that require college degrees or other specialized training.

Automatic Data Processing, or ADP, is an example of a high-end center. The New Jersey company has two El Paso call centers, which it calls Solution Centers, with 1,050 employees. They provide technical help to business clients for a variety of back-office services, including payroll, human resources and benefit administration, and auto-dealer-related services.

Call-center experience can be helpful for ADP job applicants, but unlike most other El Paso call centers, ADP requires a college degree for most jobs because they involve complex business matters, said Terry McGreehan, general manager of the ADP Solution Centers in El Paso.

Anais Ruiz, 26, who was job hunting at a recent job fair, said she's worked at several call centers since she was 19.

The jobs provide what she sees as decent pay for El Pasoans who don't have college degrees, Ruiz said.

Pay at many El Paso call centers starts at $7.50 to $8 an hour, and most provide health-care benefits and 401(k) plans.

Cook said wages have increased. About 45 percent of the call-center work force in El Paso is at the industry's lowest wage level, compared with 94 percent in 2005, he said. Gutierrez, at GC Services, said many people use call centers as steppingstones to higher positions outside the industry.

"There are few jobs where you won't utilize customer-service (skills)," he said.

Ruiz said work at some call centers can be unstable because the centers work for various companies, and when a company is lost, some of the workers are laid off. That's why Ruiz was getting information about the Dish Network call center at a recent job fair. She sees the Dish jobs as more stable because it's selling its own products.

Dish Network opened its East Side call center in early 2000, and employment peaked at 2,000 several years ago. It now employs about 900 people, as well as an additional 819 at a next-door service center, which refurbishes Dish equipment.

The work force in El Paso declined as other Dish call centers were opened in other areas, said Francie Bauer, a Dish spokeswoman in Denver. El Paso remains a "critical part of the call center-service center ecosystem," she said.

The company stopped hiring while its center was remodeled. It plans to hire about 350 customer-service reps and sales agents by the end of the year. It's also hiring about 40 people for its equipment service center.

Finding employees is more difficult today than when few call centers operated in El Paso, said Lulu Thomas, a human resources rep for Dish.

"We're all fighting for the same candidates," so it's important to do things like job fairs, she said.

Vic Kolenc may be reached at [email protected]; 546-6421.

Employment numbers Number of employees in El Paso: --T&T: 2,444 at four locations.

--GC Services: 1,985 at seven locations.

--Alorica: 1,400.

--ACS: 1,089 at three locations.

--ADP: 1,050 at two locations.

--Dish Network: 900.

--Redcats: 900.

--West Corp.: 820.

--State Farm: 600.

--Verizon Wireless: 450.

--Affina: 400.

--Telerx: 370 jobs.

--Bilingual Research Services: 300 at two locations.

--Dial America: 225.

--United Blood Services: 200.

--Empire Today: 150.

Sources: El Paso Regional Economic Development Corp., GC Services, Alorica, ADP, Dish Network, Redcats.

Now hiring Some El Paso call centers with job openings: --GC Services: 185 jobs by Oct. 23.

--Alorica: 150 jobs by end of October.

--Redcats: 420 jobs by November.

--Dish Network: 350 jobs by end of year.

--Affina: 100 jobs --ACS: 70 jobs by November.

--ADP: 25-35 jobs.

Sources: Workforce Solutions Upper Rio Grande, Redcats, GC Services, Dish Network, ADP.

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