Industry Research : Call Centres Seen as a Stopgap Job in the North East
With the decline of some big North East industries like shipbuilding and coalmining the rise of the call centre business helped to reshape the region’s economy.
In fact, the industry provides work for 60,000 people in the North East, across more than 145 call centres – figures which have increased over recent years as companies look to support their ever-increasing web presence with extra call handlers and save money by outsourcing sales, marketing or customer care services.
However, a new study suggests that most people view call centre work as a source of temporary employment, with little opportunity for career development.
The Durham University study interviewed call centre staff in the North East, as well as those working in India, and found that most viewed their job as a staging post on the way to better things.
While it found some workers were reasonably content with their conditions, most complained that low rates of pay and the lack of opportunities for promotion and advancement saw them view their jobs as "dead ends".
The findings add to the long-held and often undeserved reputation of an industry which has tried to modernise itself and faces the cost of dealing with a high turnover of staff, including perpetually hiring and retraining new workers.
Dr Jon Warren, a senior research associate in the Department of Geography at Durham University and author of the study, said: "Call centre workers taking part in the study both in the UK and India expressed a lot of aspiration and had plans for the future.
"But they saw themselves achieving this by leaving call centre work and moving on rather than by staying within the industry.
"People in the North East preferred call centre work to some other forms of employment such as working in retail or factories.
"But they mainly viewed their work as transitional and it wasn’t something they wanted to do on a long-term basis.
"Often call centres see the solution as offering better incentives and bonuses for performance or allowing greater flexibility such as allowing people to work from home.
"But if you really want to retain workers, providing better pay and a clear opportunity for career progression would more adequately meet the needs of the workers we surveyed."
However, the region’s call centre bosses disagree with the report and believe that the call centre industry can provide a long and rewarding career.
Gateshead contact centre and fulfilment business Spark Response employs over 300 people during its busiest periods and has a turnover of over £10m.
The firm, which provides services for clients including Toys R Us, Red Direct, Cancer Research UK and Soap and Glory, has seen many of its senior staff work their way up from call handlers to more senior positions, and said that its workers spend an average of six years with the company.
Alan Sawyers, marketing and communications manager at Spark, said: "Most of our senior staff started out as call centre operatives, so I would disagree with the findings as we have proven that this industry can provide people with a long-term career.
"I think the image of call centres has changed over recent years, with investment in areas such as offices and technology making them more attractive."
Another supporter of the industry as a career option is Stuart Gray, managing director of Sunderland-based contact centre and marketing fulfilment company 2Touch.
The firm, which employs almost 1,000 staff, has seen its sales increase from £14.4m to almost £20m in the last two years and is looking to create 300 jobs over the next two years after picking up a series of new contracts and strengthening its e-commerce sales.
Gray said: "While it is true that some of our younger staff tend to stick around for only a short while, this doesn’t take away from the fact that many stay with us over a much longer term as they identify ways in which to develop a career with us. Our outbound sales workers tend to be younger as it can be a much more lively environment and can result in a number of knock backs. As such, they tend to stay with us for a shorter time.
"However, it’s about finding the jewels within your workforce and making sure that they are supported and made aware of the opportunities that exist in our business model, which we do through our talent management programme.
"While there is a degree of high staff turnover in some areas of the industry, I would disagree that it offers little in the way of promotion and advancement."
While a previous trend among call centre firms to transfer their operations abroad led to a large degree of uncertainty in the industry, a more recent trend of companies returning to the North, known as North shoring, may see a sense of job security return to the sector.
Paul Wilson, managing director of Gateshead recruitment firm Catalyst, said: "I've always had the impression that most people view call centre work as being similar to work in other industries – some jobs being highly skilled and technical.
"In fact, about 15 years ago I temped at a call centre for the AA during summer holidays when at university and worked alongside a number of people who had established long and successful careers in the industry.
"Of course, there are always people and companies that are looking for temporary contracts but this is true in most trades.
"I guess when the call centres were new to the region there may have been some caution. However, the industry is now well established, with a number of skilled roles involved.
"Also, there's financial pressure for companies to open overseas. That affects most industries, however, and we see it in reverse with trends such as North shoring, and for many other reasons, which means jobs are kept in the region.
"The important message is we must adapt and accept change – it’s a given that industry will move on."
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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