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U.S. Call Center/Back Office Operations Regaining Lost Ground

The United States is uniquely positioned to gain back the jobs in this now more knowledge-based sector that have been lost over the last decade.

Spring 2011
Once perceived as the source of those annoying calls received at dinnertime, the call center/back office industry has transformed into a highly diversified cluster of operation types that are a crucial component of U.S. white-collar job creation. These jobs are more critical than ever to help the nation reduce unemployment and recover from one of the worst recessions in history.

Based on research conducted by Site Selection Group, the domestic call center/back office industry created more than 94,000 U.S. jobs in 2010. This was approximately half of the 193,181 call center jobs created worldwide. After deducting the announced layoff of just under 20,000 call center/back office jobs, this equates to net new job creation of more than 74,000 workers being hired in various types of U.S. call center/back office operations. That is the equivalent of the entire labor force of Flagstaff, Arizona! In order to understand why these jobs are important, it is critical to review historic call center/back office job creation around the globe. Site Selection Group has analyzed the market growth and geographic dispersion of this sector from the "dot com crash" through the height of offshoring. This analysis revealed that U.S. call center/back office job creation has surged in the last year. Why is this occurring? What types of corporations are expanding these operations and where? What kind of jobs are they creating? Is this simply a phenomenon or a real trend that is here to stay?

Who's Expanding?
Let's first take a look at what types of companies are expanding. For simplicity purposes, we have categorized these companies into two types - captive operations and business process outsourcers.

Captive operations are those call center/back office operations that are kept "in-house" and are operated by the actual company to serve its own customers or employees. Examples would include any major Fortune 500 brand ranging from Apple to Verizon.

Business process outsourcers, on the other hand, are third-party companies that the captive corporations hire on an outsourced basis to service their customers or employees. The largest domestic business process outsourcers include companies such as Convergys, TeleTech, and Sitel. These companies typically work on very thin operating margins, requiring them to seek out low-cost locations to increase efficiency. As a result, they pay lower wages and typically experience higher employee turnover than captive operations. Chart A identifies the top 10 deals (in terms of employment numbers) announced in the call center/back office sector in 2010 within each of these categories.

What's Driving Growth?
There are three core factors driving the growth of the call center/back office industry in the United States today. It should be noted that these factors have changed over the years as the industry has matured.

1. Business process transformation - The industry started from simple transactional functions such as data entry and simple call center activities. Today, the types of call center and back office activities have expanded to include more complex functions such as claims processing, accounting, employee benefit management, and clinical healthcare support. The following list outlines the transition of lower-end functions to more knowledge-based activities:

  • Data entry: The industry started with simple activities such as manual data entry, application processing, transaction processing, and document imaging.

  • Contact center: The traditional call center type functions that are most commonly found include customer service, collections, telemarketing, and technical support.

  • Back office processing: More knowledge-based activities such as claims processing, employee benefit management, mortgage processing, concierge, and general research activities are now included.

  • Corporate shared services: Internal corporate functions once found in corporate headquarters - including accounts payable/receivable, human resources, IT help desk, and procurement - are now also included.

  • Professional services and support: There's been increasing growth in true professional service functions requiring specialty degrees and licenses for activities such as legal, clinical healthcare, financial services, research/analysis, and risk management. (Chart B illustrates this progression.)

2. Diminishing advantages of offshore and near-shore locations - Over the last decade, the movement of jobs to "offshore" locations (e.g., India and the Philippines) and "near-shore" locations (e.g., Canada and Latin America) has become a way of life. The financial benefits of offshoring have proven to be incredible for corporations, but they are often too good to be true. There are several factors diminishing the advantages of offshore and near-shore locations, including the following:

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