Is Tucson ‘call center city?' - Inside Tucson Business: Top Stories

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Is Tucson ‘call center city?'

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Posted: Friday, August 5, 2011 12:00 pm

About 1,600 people showed up a week ago for a chance to talk with recruiters hiring for up to 600 positions at a new call center on Tucson's southwest side.

While new jobs are welcome in the current economic environment, this latest arrival once again begs questions about Tucson's reliance on call centers for jobs.

There are at least 40 call centers currently operating in the Tucson region, accounting for 16,000 jobs, according to Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities (TREO). That's about 4 percent of the region's total employment.

While the industry has a reputation for paying low wages and having high turnover, not all of Tucson's call centers fit that description.

TREO helped the latest arrival, C3/CustomerContactChannels, with site selection, job training resources and city permitting.

And the turnout of potential employees "certainly was encouraging," said Bob Tenzer, senior vice president for human resources at C3, which operates facilities in four other U.S. cities as well as Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, India and Philippines.

"Comparatively, from a tax as well as wage structure perspective, we're still lower than some of the other communities," said Michael Guymon, vice president of regional development for TREO.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Tucson's median household income of $47,147 is more than $15,000 below the national average.

Guymon also said the availability of commercial space made Tucson attractive to C3. The location the company settled on, a former Honeywell manufacturing facility, at 1150 W. Drexel Road west of Interstate 10, actually was a second choice.

"We feel great about the labor market here," Tenzer said.

In addition to a strong supply of workers with previous customer service and call center experience here, the city also has bilingual residents. Tenzer said many of the companies' clients, who outsource customer service needs to C3, need bilingual service.

C3 also could benefit from the City of Tucson's expedited building permitting process and from Pima County's One Stop career development services, which places unemployed workers in new jobs.

Tenzer said the company plans to begin training of new employees later this month and be fully operational by October.

The jobs start at $10 per hour, Tenzer said.

According to research TREO provided, local call centers have been undergoing a change, offering higher pay, better benefits and requiring greater workforce skills from employees.

In Tucson, TREO's research shows, call center jobs have gone from $6- to $9-per hour pay scales to $10 and $13 per hour.

Even with the industry improvements, questions lingers about whether call centers represent the type of economic development nest for Tucson's future?

"It's not one our targeted industries," said Guymon, who said TREO more actively pursues high-tech, aerospace and biotechnology firms, which are the sorts of industries that provide high-wage careers and support numerous ancillary industries.

But with the economy still hobbled and the illusive recovery not yet realized, Guymon said the region can use any new industry that comes along.

"If companies like C3 and others come knocking, we're going to open that door," he said.

The region's economy continues to limp along, with foreclosure rates still high, a myriad of homes on the market and unemployment at nearly 10 percent.

"The economy has not been generating jobs, so there's quite a demand for even low-paying call center jobs," said economist Marshall Vest, director of the Economic and Business Research Center at the University of Arizona.

The most recent jobs forecast for Pima County shows about 45,000 people are out of work, an estimate Vest believes is low because it only includes people actively searching for work and not the thousands of job seekers who have become discouraged and stopped looking.

Put into perspective, Vest said, in 2007 there were about 15,000 to 20,000 people out of work in Pima County.

"The turnout for this is a clear signal that we have lots of people with those skills," he said. "You welcome jobs where ever you can find them."

Guymon said he doesn't think Tucson would become a call center capital anytime soon.

"We don't want to be that, we want to build high-tech and aerospace, we want to build the bioscience industry," Guymon said. "We want to be mentioned in the same sentence as Austin or Portland."

Contact reporter Patrick McNamara at pmcnamara@azbiz.com or (520) 295-4259.