Call centers aren't exactly fleeing state

Still, officials fear effects of federal do-not-call list, lure of moving overseas

Industry employs 21,000 in Md.

Most jobs are aimed at helping customers

March 28, 2004|By Bill Atkinson | Bill Atkinson,SUN STAFF

Economic development officials in counties across Maryland are divided over whether the state's robust call-center industry will face increasing pressure as companies send more telemarketing work overseas and grapple with tighter federal regulations that restrict calls to consumers.

Maryland is home to about 21,000 call-center jobs, some of which have been slipping away in recent months. But some development officials say call-center operations are easy to move and it's not surprising that they leave.

Still, concerns are rising as a national debate rages over outsourcing of call-center work to India and other countries.

Tough new federal regulations have slammed the industry and threaten as many as 2 million telemarketing jobs nationwide, according to industry experts. Telemarketers face an $11,000 fine every time they call a number listed on the national "do-not-call" registry.

"There are some real pressures," said Jim Conway, vice president of government relations in Washington for the Direct Marketing Association, a trade group in New York. "When you have a [do-not-call] list of 58 million numbers obviously that is going to have an impact to say nothing that there is cost in complying with the do-not-call" regulation.

Emblematic of the danger in Maryland was a recent decision by Inovant LLC, which operates a 300-employee call center in Owings Mills, to cut its staff in half in the next 18 months and ship 150 jobs to Montreal and Latin America.

David S. Iannucci, executive director of the Baltimore County Department of Economic Development, said he is worried that about 2,000 telemarketing jobs in his county could be threatened because of stiff fines and regulations preventing telemarketers from calling more than 58 million telephone numbers contained on the national do-not-call registry.

"I think now is the time for the counties and the state to strategize on how to deal with what could be a threat to jobs," he said. "I don't believe 2,000 are going to be negatively affected, certainly they have to be considered at risk."

Others agree that call centers could be squeezed.

"We have certainly seen pockets of centers that are no more," said Brad Cleveland, president and chief executive of Incoming Calls Management Institute, an Annapolis consulting and education firm. "The outbound world has definitely felt the effects. There are centers that have had to close."

A number of companies have large call centers throughout Maryland ranging from MBNA Corp. to CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield to Northwest Airlines Inc.

In Maryland, call-center jobs make up roughly 1 percent of the work force, according to a 1999 survey by the state's Department of Business and Economic Development.

The survey said 94 companies operated 109 call centers employing more than 21,319 workers with an annual payroll of about $338 million. Baltimore County has the most centers -- about 18 -- with approximately 6,000 workers, Iannucci says.

"We do everything we can to retain those jobs," said Christopher Foster, deputy secretary of the state's economic development agency. "There are 21,000 [call center jobs] in the state, so they are darned important."

Economic development officials like call-center jobs because they require skilled workers and often pay good wages. The jobs also offer benefits and flexible hours. Most of the jobs in the state handle calls from individuals needing help, such as with a bank account, credit card, gas bill or cable-television service. A small percentage of the call-center jobs solicit sales from consumers and are lower paying jobs.

"Processing centers are one of our five target ... industries," said Richard W. Story, chief executive officer of Howard County's Economic Development Authority. "Many communities around the country would like to have them."

"We want them," said Thomas Cooley, director of Economic Development for Allegheny County. "I think they are very important to our economy here."

About 1,000 jobs are tied to call centers in Allegheny County. The biggest are operated by Affiliated Computer Services Inc. of Dallas, which employs about 500, and Spherix Inc. of Beltsville, which has 250 workers, said Timothy Carney, who represents Allegheny's economic development arm.

Cooley said he is trying to bring more call-center jobs to the county and maintain the ones already there.

"I think outsourcing, whether you are looking at manufacturing or call centers, is a critical issue for us," Cooley said.

Tim Troxell, executive director of Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission, said the potential loss of call-center jobs overseas is a "concern."

"I am hearing a lot about it from a national standpoint," he said.

Call centers are an important buttress of Washington County's economy. The county's largest employers, Citicorp Credit Services Inc. and First Data Merchant Services Corp., operate call centers in the county that employ about 4,400 workers, Troxell said.

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