Many U.S. workers at call centers have seen their jobs shipped overseas in recent years as companies sought cheap labor as a way to cut costs. Beyond lost jobs, the moves also resulted in complaints by consumers about having to deal with foreign-accented employees at call centers in far off places such as India or the Philippines.
But to the delight of job seekers and consumers alike, the trend of outsourcing customer service jobs overseas appears to be slowly reversing. Simple transactions which used to require human interaction, such as password changes and product orders, are quickly being automated.
These technological advances are freeing up customer-service personnel to handle more complex tasks. As The Daily Beast notes, such call center work means that workers must have advanced communication skills and product knowledge. And that's resulting in more jobs for Americans at U.S.-based facilities.
Four years ago, 30 percent of high-tech firms' call-center employees were offshore, according to Mary Murcott, CEO of Novo 1, a Fort Worth, Texas-based outsourcing company. Speaking at a White House panel on offshoring in January, Murcott said that because of an increase in on-shoring, also called reshoring or insourcing, the number has dropped to around 12 percent.
Murcott told the gathering that call center jobs are "coming back, but nobody's talking about it."
The development is potentially good news for unemployed Americans, outsourcing expert George Schindler told The Wall Street Journal, though there isn't yet a groundswell of reshoring, especially in another heavily off-shored sector: back-office jobs, such as accounting and information technology.
"Companies are not satisfied with the quality overseas, and they can't afford to have things reworked two or three times," especially in technology development, said Schindler, president of CGI Group Inc.
When it comes to customer-service jobs, some credit-card companies, for example, still maintain call centers in India, but maintain a team of employees in the U.S. and Canada for their most valued customers, who may be unsatisfied in dealing with foreign-sounding phone staff.
Even as employers are reevaluating their offshoring policies, U.S. Sen Bob Casey, D-Pa., has begun pushing legislation that would make employers ineligible for federal grants or loans, should they establish overseas call centers.
As The Express-Times of Easton reports, Casey is limiting the scope of his bill to the call-center industry because he believes that's where the problem is largest -- though the legislation could be broadened.
The move comes in response to the loss of more than 605 jobs at a recently shuttered T-Mobile USA call center in the Lehigh Valley community of Hanover Township, about 110 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
In response, the company, a division of Germany's Deutsche Telekom, said the Hanover job cuts were the result of a decision to reduce the number of U.S. call centers to 17 from 24, and wasn't an issue of offshoring.
"[We] have 2 million fewer customers than we once did," T-Mobile said, in part, in a statement.
One of those who lost his job at the Lehigh Valley facility is Barry Lagler Jr., who worked in technical support and was employed by T-Mobile for six years. Lagler, who earned about $40,000 a year, said that he is unable to find a job locally that pays him the same salary and now works part-time in the restaurant industry.
Nationwide, the demand for customer service representatives, many of whom work in call centers, is forecast to grow about 15 percent -- about as fast as average -- through the end of the decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The mean annual wage for such workers is $30,460, or $14.64 an hour, BLS data show. The industry employs about 2.2 million in the U.S., many of them employed at insurance companies, banks and retailers, among others.
As the Daily Beast notes, as customer-service jobs become more specialized, many new positions will require applicants to speak recognizably American English -- giving Americans the advantage in landing them.
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