No Longer ‘McJobs’: Atlantic call centres are spreading — upmarket

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The delivery is flawless: formal but with just the right hint of happy- to-have-your-business enthusiasm. “Good morning. The Fairmont San Jose reservations,” the black-clad call centre agent purrs into his headset. “My name is Matthew. How may I help you?” To the next caller, he’s Matthew the reservations clerk at Chateau Lake Louise. A couple of minutes later, he’s Matthew behind the reservations desk at New York’s legendary Plaza, another property managed by the Canadian-owned Fairmont Hotels & Resorts Inc. chain. No one on the other end seems to realize they’re actually talking to Matthew Elias, 22, from tiny Belledune, N.B. Or that he happens to be sitting in a tastefully coloured cubicle inside a converted grocery store on the outskirts of Moncton, even as he ensures that the businessman from Seattle gets a king-sized bed when he checks into his room in Silicon Valley. Matthew, wherever he pretends to be sitting, is a master of illusion: when asked what the weather is like a continent away, he nimbly calls up San Jose’s forecast on his computer screen, making it sound to the caller like he’s looking out the window into California sunlight rather than a sodden New Brunswick sky.

Few callers really care where Matthew is as long as there’s a nice room waiting when they arrive at their destination. Which is precisely why Fairmont’s 300-person global reservation centre now sits on the outskirts of a small, out-of-the-way Maritime city. Moving its reservation operations from Phoenix, Ariz., to New Brunswick in 1995 gave the chain access to cheap, plentiful labour, top-of-the line telecommunications technology and bargain real estate, all with an extra discount from the low Canadian dollar.

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Throw in a provincial government happy to provide financial incentives to make relocation more enticing and it’s clear why New Brunswick’s call centre industry is booming. With a workforce of 16,000, it now employs more people than the province’s traditional forestry sector. Moreover, New Brunswick’s success is proving contagious throughout the job-hungry region: Nova Scotia now has more than 12,000 call centre workers, Newfoundland another 4,500 and even tiny Prince Edward Island over 1,700. “The sky is the limit,” declares Frank McKenna who, while New Brunswick’s premier, personally ignited the call centre explosion a decade ago. “This industry could double in size and still not be anywhere near saturation.”

A born salesman getting carried away with himself? Not necessarily. Offshore energy may get all the headlines, but the expansion of the call centre sector is one of the region’s biggest engines of growth. Cheers went up across New Brunswick in 1991 when Federal Express Canada and two other firms created 270 jobs by opening the first call centres. But compare that with the 1,100 people United Parcel Service Canada Ltd. now has manning the desks in Moncton and Fredericton, the 1,100 EDS Canada Inc. employees working in Sydney and, soon, Port Hawkesbury, N.S., and the 2,500 folk Convergys Customer Management Canada Inc. has toiling in Dartmouth and New Glasgow, N.S.

Critics may complain that those are “McJobs” which relegate the sons and daughters of proud fishermen and miners to the status of lowly telephone operators serving faceless customers while supervisors listen in to monitor their performance. But talk to the mother who can earn $25,000 as a starting salary and enjoy a decent benefits package without leaving her rural village. Or ask a manager far away in the Alberta oil patch who can now earn up to $80,000 in his Maritime home province. Then it’s a different story. “Let’s put it this way,” says Ronna Turner, 38, who works on UPS’s customs brokerage desk in Moncton, “before this job came around I was looking for work. Now the work is interesting, the wage is very good and I’ve got a career I can look forward to.”

No wonder every government in the region has large squads of pitchmen criss-crossing the continent angling for new business. The industry, moreover, is moving upmarket. Nobody wants the old-style operations — depressing sweatshops filled with poorly paid workers trying to peddle vacuum cleaners, the latest credit cards, and time-shares in Florida over the telephone. “If they want to come here that’s great,” says Norm Betts, minister in charge of Business New Brunswick. “But we’re in no way supporting outbound call centres.” He, like so many others in the business, eschews the old “call centre” handle altogether, preferring to label them “customer contact centres,” which is meant to reflect the shift in the industry. Nowadays, upwards of 75 per cent of the centres in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are “inbound” operations, which receive information over the phone, through e-mails and via the Web, rather than make outgoing telemarketing calls. From their desks throughout Atlantic Canada, agents arrange hotel and airline reservations, schedule courier pickups, process buy and sell orders for mutual funds or stocks, and provide technical assistance to customers of some of the globe’s largest computer, software and communications giants.

EDS, which answered its first Sydney call in 2000, is a case in point. Like many of the newcomers to the Atlantic sector, it makes money by “outsourcing” — taking on specific customer service functions for corporations, governments and agencies from across the continent. From inside its $14-million Sydney building, some 900 people service U.S. telecom giant AT&T Corp.’s customers and provide technical support for all of Hewlett-Packard Co.’s products. They take subscriptions for BusinessWeek and Soap Opera Digest and support Franklin Covey Corp., a U.S. outfit that sells office products and motivational tapes and software. “This is a Jewel-of-the-Nile operation,” says Jim Paris, vice-president of business-process management at EDS Canada. “We do very complex procedures for some of the biggest companies in the world, we do them extremely well and we do them right here in Cape Breton.”

A city like Sydney, which just saw the area’s last coal mine and steel mill close, is happy to have the work. EDS’s local payroll runs about $19 million yearly, with another $9 million due to be injected into the economy around Port Hawkesbury, 110 km away. Regionally, the bottom line is becoming spectacular. In New Brunswick, for example, the customer contact industry now contributes $1 billion yearly to the provincial economy.

The impact can be especially intense in smaller, rural areas that have been dying throughout Atlantic Canada due to the decline in traditional livelihoods like fishing, farming and forestry. “Anything that gives our young people reason to stay around is a good thing,” declares Audrey Thomson, council chairwoman for O’Leary, P.E.I., a farming community just minutes from where Help Desk Now Inc., a North Carolina- based outsourcing company, is set to open a new 100-job customer support centre this spring. The wave of the future could be Virtual- Agent Services, which is sprinkling small clusters of telephone agents throughout New Brunswick and connecting them through a single “virtual” call centre. So far, VAS has started clusters with 50-100 jobs apiece in six small communities. Eventually, it plans to open another 16 to handle calls for catalogue companies, airlines, reservation departments and any other organizations that need a service centre but lack the volume to justify building their own.

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The spectre of a regional industrial development policy built around even more call centre jobs gives some observers the willies. “It makes the Maritimes look like some kind of banana republic,” complains Tim Carroll, a business professor at the University of Prince Edward Island. “That makes us vulnerable for every shyster who wants to save a dime.” True, the wide variety of government incentives — everything from upfront training and capital costs to a tax rebate based on a percentage of a new payroll — doesn’t always pay off. In April, Minacs Worldwide, which received $1.8 million in payroll rebates from the Nova Scotia government, laid off 199 and transferred 70 more from its Halifax centre after losing an outsourcing contract from a satellite television firm. The governments, though, maintain they are getting great bang for their buck. Moreover, with every province in the country — as well as other English-speaking nations as far away as India — scrambling for call centre business, the only choice is to offer some kind of incentive, says David MacNeill, manager of investment for Nova Scotia Business Inc. “If you don’t play you’re out of the game.”

All the same, there’s a touch of nervousness about what will happen as some of the incentive packages inked in the mid-1990s begin to expire this year. The call centre companies themselves say they set up shop where it makes business sense, not where the government is most willing to sweeten the pot. “We’d be very poor businessmen if we invested this much here all for some government money,” says EDS’s Paris. “This is a long-term commitment.” Low-cost Atlantic Canada, after all, continues to offer plenty of allure. A stable work force is high on the list of attractions: in the United States, where such jobs are plentiful, call centres routinely undergo a 120 per cent turnover each year. In Atlantic Canada, where job security still counts for a lot, the norm is below 30 per cent. With time, though, such loyalty is likely to diminish. That is, as long as the customer service centres keep calling.