Jobs in heart of darkness

More white-collar workers adjusting to the night shift

August 31, 2006|By Amy Rosewater | Amy Rosewater,Special to The Sun

Blue-collar workers once ruled the night.

But with manufacturing jobs on the decline, a growing number of white-collar professionals are taking on the physical and personal challenges of working the night shift to meet a growing need for round-the-clock services.

About half of the 24 million Americans who work outside the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. are in white-collar jobs such as technology, finance, calling centers and health care, according to Circadian Technologies Inc., a Stoneham, Mass., consulting firm that specializes in nighttime work issues.

"One of the trends we've seen is that businesses that weren't quite 24/7 before are getting that way and the number of white-collar jobs at night are increasing," said Dr. Martin Moore-Ede, a former Harvard medical professor who founded Circadian Technologies in 1983.

The work isn't for everyone. Workplace experts warn that night shifts have proven to be difficult on marriages and most certainly affect sleep patterns. Employees in those jobs must be comfortable working independently and get used to not having many colleagues or bosses around to interact with consistently.

Despite those challenges, companies and workers are adjusting to the changing demands. Some fast-food restaurants and grocery stores have added nighttime hours in part to serve those who work night shifts. There are more calling center operators now to meet the growing consumer demand. And information technology staffing has grown for all the computer needs, including companies that outsource their technology functions and want access to a help desk around the clock.

"Two or three years ago, we had little or no requests for third-shift work," said Chris Wallace, Baltimore district manager for Ajilon, a consulting and recruiting company that specializes in information technology.

"We've received more and more of those requests, especially because so much business is offshore and business has to be seamless," Wallace said.

"It's so different the way that we work now. Now, you don't realize how much you depend on your e-mail until it's not working. The Internet has absolutely changed this."

Though still a fraction of the overall work force, communities have always needed nighttime workers. Doctors and nurses often work around the clock, as do public safety workers such as police officers and firefighters. But with the prevalence of computers and the growth of consumer spending on the Internet, there is a growing need for white-collar employees to burn the midnight oil as well.

"People have certain expectations about service now," said Kathryn M. Bartol, who specializes in information technology at the University of Maryland, College Park's Robert H. Smith School of Business. "Basically, people believe service should be available all of the time."

Realizing the growing demographic of night owls, fast-food outlets such as McDonald's and Taco Bell are staying open later - some are staffed 24 hours a day. Taco Bell executives, who said their decision to expand hours was in part because more of their customers were working overnight shifts, even launched an advertising campaign this summer called "fourth meal," promoting it as the meal between dinner and breakfast.

"We've seen a real shift in work patterns now that we're a 24/7 society," Taco Bell spokesman Will Bortz said. "As technology has shifted, instead of people working less, everyone seems to working more and later into the day. Instead of having the 6 p.m. dinner, now dinner time is much, much later."

There also is an increased demand for staffing calling centers, because more people are shopping from their homes at night by telephone or via the Internet. Some consumers also have questions for credit-card, health care and other companies.

"More companies are outsourcing their calls," said Gary Pudles, chief executive officer of AnswerNet Network, a Princeton, N.J.-based answering service with calling centers in Towson, Salisbury and Baltimore. "They can't afford not to be available."

AnswerNet has nearly 3,000 employees, with about 65 working at any given time. Staffing the jobs at night is the most difficult, Pudles said, for the company's 55 call centers.

"We want to find people who want to work at night," Pudles said. "And I love those people."

Aundrea Mitchell, regional manager for the company's operations in Baltimore, said she has to make sure the night shift is right for a new employee.

"I've read that you're either meant to work that shift or you're not," Mitchell said. "The people that stick are the people who tailor their lives around it."

Steven Bleiberg, who runs asset allocation funds for Baltimore-based Legg Mason Inc., is in charge of a team of six people - two of whom are based in Hong Kong. Bleiberg lives in New York but is often on conference calls at 10 p.m. to account for the 12-hour time difference between New York and Hong Kong. He also has to keep pace with news in Europe and Japan and track their markets closely.

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