Originally created 09/30/01

Area provides fertile soil for call centers



Augusta's economy has taken its share of lumps during the recent economic downturn. But one of its fastest-growing industries, call centers, has yet to show any battle scars.

In fact, the industry that already employs more than 2,000 workers in the metro area got a boost earlier this week when a New Jersey telemarketer announced plans to develop a 200-employee call center in west Augusta.

Earlier this year cable operators Comcast and Knology developed customer service centers in Augusta whose combined employment approaches 300.

The Augusta-Aiken area has more than a dozen so-called "back office" facilities filled with cubicles of telephone operators and data-entry personnel doing everything from selling insurance to taking plane reservations to answering consumers' questions about their refrigerators.

The phenomenon began in Augusta during the 1970s, when United Health Care, then part of Travelers Insurance, began processing insurance claims.

Such operations are replacing traditional "smokestack" industries as the new job generators in Augusta.

Jeff Humphreys, an economist and forecaster for the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth, said call centers are not recession proof, but they are better insulated in a slow economy because they are corporate America's most cost-efficient marketing avenues.

"What's happening, partially, is increased pressure to process transactions more efficiently," he said. "Right now it's virtually impossible to raise prices, so companies have to cut down costs."

Augusta's telemarketing companies include Dial America, FutureCall and Civic Development Group, the last of which will begin interviewing employees Wednesday for the 10,000-square-foot call center it plans to open at the Westgate Center Business Park by Oct. 12.

The Civic Development Group, like many of Augusta's call centers, offers entry-level positions at pay rates well above minimum wage. Although such developments do not create secondary and tertiary investments in the way a heavy industry would, the call centers are at least creating steady jobs for those who want them.

"Augusta's unemployment rate right now translates into 14,000 people looking for work," said Kevin Shea, senior vice president of economic development for the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce.

And those in the business say that working at a call center is not a dead-end job if an employee is motivated.

"One hundred percent of our managers started out on the phone," said Walter Lapinksi, president of call centers for Civic Development Group.

Mr. Lapinksi studied 10 Georgia cities before settling on Augusta. He, like other call center scouts, recognized that Augusta has large numbers of college students and military spouses, who dutiful part-time workers.

Augusta, with its historically high unemployment rate, also has a readily available labor pool, which helps feed a call center's high turnover rate.

If the staggering economy has done anything to call centers, it has reduced their turnover rates.

"In good times you have a lot of turnover," said Linda MacKenzie, president of Entretel Inc., a Canadian call-center-consulting company. "In these times, people will be grateful they have a job."

Some of Augusta's call centers, such as Delta Air Lines' call-reservation center on River Watch Parkway, have never had problems with employee turnover.

That's because call-center workers are offered the same coveted benefits package other Delta employees have.

"People, if they have an option between a job at Delta and a job at another call center, they would opt more for Delta," Delta spokeswoman Alesia Watson said. "We have not heard anything about having problems staffing call centers."

Telemarketing-driven centers, such as those operated by FutureCall and Dial America, often compete for workers, as do the order-processing and customer-service divisions at Augusta's Sears Contract Sales and Electrolux Home Products. But no one in the industry has yet to say the city's work force can't support more call centers.

"I have no problem filling positions. I've got people on standby," said Nelson Curry, manager of the Dial America telemarketing operation in North Augusta. "My ultimate goal is to put another call center in the Augusta area."

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486 or bized@augustachronicle.com.