It’s an industry that has flourished since the early 1990s in the Pikes Peak region, employing thousands locally — all with little fanfare.
El Paso County boasts 43 call center or “shared services” operations, according to the Greater Colorado Springs Economic Development Corp. And, based on the outcome of current corporate relocation efforts, the city could add another “back office” operator or two, said David White, executive vice president of marketing.
Any additions would only underscore the city’s popularity as a call center capital. In fact, since 2000, the Pikes Peak region has attracted 20 new such enterprises.
White admitted that the industry has been sometimes underappreciated by local stakeholders looking for new six-figure jobs like those common before the tech bubble burst. However, call centers not only employ thousands of workers, they are proven engines for economic development.
“We’ve got several prospects in that category, and some, like one company in California we’ve been talking with, pay average salaries of $42,000 or more,” White said, emphasizing that such centers often draw additional IT, accounting or other employment to the area.
While some smaller companies pay $8 to $10 per hour for entry level employees — usually outbound jobs — others, including the inbound customer service providers, are bringing in more corporate departments, bumping up job salary and advancement opportunities.
White said an example would be Progressive Insurance which opened a call center during 2003. By 2006, it had added a two-building 175,000-square-foot data center, a claims department and hundreds of administrative positions.
“Those shared services push the average salary up,” he said.
Progressive spokeswoman Leah Knapp confirmed White’s view.
“Our Colorado Springs site includes a mix of hourly and salaried employees,” she said. “The starting pay for a call center representative ranges between $12.50 and $13.50 per hour depending on … work experience. Reps can earn up to $14 per hour with previous work experience. In addition, our Gainshare program gives every regular Progressive employee the opportunity to earn wages that are better than average based on our growth and profitability. And at our large locations — including Colorado Springs — we offer additional amenities like on-site medical facilities and fitness centers.”
ACS Regional Vice President Mike Stann, who oversees the firm’s Colorado Springs 80,000-square-foot facility on the Verizon campus, said that while the company has focused since August on recruiting for its inbound call center, “We’re always looking for organic growth.”
“We’re only handling one type of call now for our client who wanted us to locate in the West or Mountain time zone,” he said. “That way we could handle customer service calls from all areas, including the East Coast. Once we prove ourselves at the first level, that opens the door to being able to handle other call types and other functions.”
Starting wages at ACS range from $9 to $13 per hour, but the company also offers a number of salaried positions. Most jobs also include performance or incentive pay.
“During the holidays, for example, they’ll be dealing with a lot of telecommunications customers, so we’ll need to be staffed up to take those calls,” Stann said. “That means time and a half for our hourly employees.”
While total employment figures have not been compiled by EDC, payroll at just four of the area’s largest call centers — Progressive with 800 to 1,000 call “technicians,” — an industry term for customer service and outbound call center employees, ACS with 620 employees, T. Rowe Price with about 650 and PRC with staffing almost 600 by year’s end, employ more than 3,000 people.
A few companies have come and gone during the past 15 years, including MCI and Deluxe Check, which staffed up and then closed after a few years of operation. But that can be a boon to ongoing firms.
“In my region with 3,500 agents, we’ve doubled revenue during the past 12 months and are going strong — even during these stressful economic times,” Stann said.
One plus the city offers compared to its many competitors, Stann said, is a highly educated work force.
“Bottom line, we’re still a cottage industry — but overall I think we’re maturing,” he said. “People have become more comfortable with phoning or chatting with a call center representative.”