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FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is heading to Indiana Thursday to speak
at the unveiling of a new contact/call center and the launching of
jobs4america, a coalition of contact center companies that says it is
trying to tap into broadband to create new jobs in this country.
are also the companies that outsource such calls offshore, but the goal
of the new coalition is to leverage broadband to do more outsourcing to
Indiana rather than India. In a release, the FCC billed the coalition
as "forward-looking businesses committed to creating thousands of new
jobs in America."
Washington (CNN) -- A hundred thousand jobs are forecast from the creation of "call centers" that would be based in the United States, according to a statement ahead of a planned announcement Thursday by the head of the Federal Communications Commission.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski will unveil the project at an event in Jeffersonville, Indiana, along with business leaders from the group "Jobs4America." They are hoping to generate 100,000 jobs the next two years at call centers that would provide a variety of consumer support services. Read more at: http://www.cnn.com/2011/POLITICS/08/04/call.center.jobs/
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski will unveil the project at an event in Jeffersonville, Indiana, along with business leaders from the group "Jobs4America." They are hoping to generate 100,000 jobs the next two years at call centers that would provide a variety of consumer support services.
Read more at: http://www.cnn.com/2011/POLITICS/08/04/call.center.jobs/
SOUTH BEND, Ind. August 4, 2011 (AP)
A coalition largely made up of call center companies is planning to hire 100,000 new employees in the U.S. over the next two years thanks to advancements in broadband access, with some of the jobs returning from overseas, the Federal Communications Commission chairman said.
"It's our hope that this is not going to be a one-time thing, but that this is part of a virtuous cycle of job creation and demand generation that will lead to more job creation," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
Genachowski is scheduled to announce the jobs commitment Thursday in the southern Indiana town of Jeffersonville, where Accent Marketing Services is building a new facility that will add 175 jobs that pay about $13 an hour.
Read More at: http://abcnews.go.com/Business/wireStory?id=14227880
Carbonite, a Boston-based company providing online data backup services, is in the process of replacing its call centre in India with one in the United States.
Despite higher costs in the US, Carbonite says it has taken the step due to high turnover among its Indian staff, and complaints about the quality of service provided.
The company is hiring staff for its new call centre in the north-eastern state of Maine. The centre was set up in June and expects to have 150 employees by the end of the year, going up to 250 by the end of 2012. This operation will replace Carbonite's call centre in India, which will be closed by the year-end, according to statements of company officials, sending home around 150 workers.
Read More at: http://www.business-standard.com/india/news/us-company-moves-back-call-centreindia/443546/
India’s outsourcing giants — faced with rising wages at home — have looked for growth opportunities in the United States. But with Washington crimping visas for visiting Indian workers, some companies such as Aegis are slowly hiring workers in North America, where their largest corporate customers are based. In this evolution, outsourcing has come home.
Capuana, a manager for Aegis in New York, motivates this U.S. office with dress-down days and the prospect that workers could, one day, earn a stint training call center workers in Goa, India. One of his tasks is to staff 176 cubicles, where workers make or take calls for customers of prescription drug plans or Medicare contracts and enter and verify information. The pay runs $12 to $14 an hour, with bonus checks of up to $730 a month.
“Our recruitment model is simple,” says Capuana, who played Division III college football, wears rosary beads on his wrist and has a picture of Jesus above his desk. “I don’t care if you come from Park Avenue or the park bench. If you can do the job, we want you.”
Aegis, a subsidiary of India’s Essar Group, an energy, telecom and metals conglomerate, says it’s pioneering the next generation of outsourcing: putting the work close to its global customers. Its executives call the practice “near-sourcing,” “diverse shoring” and, sometimes, “cross-shoring.”
Madhu Vuppuluri, chief executive and dealmaker for the Americas division of Essar Group, remembers watching outsourcing grow in India in the late 1990s and early 2000s and thinking that the decline of U.S. call centers was overdone. He persuaded the billionaire Ruia brothers, Essar’s Indian owners, to let him make a counterintuitive bet: In 2000, he bid on the bankrupt assets of Telequestion, a 500-person call center in Arlington, Tex., for $2.5 million.
That led to other acquisitions in the United States and abroad. Today, Aegis employs 50,000 of Essar’s 70,000 employees on several continents. About 5,000 people work at nine U.S. call centers. Aegis, which is on the hunt for more acquisitions, has said it aims to triple its U.S. head count, to more than 15,000.
The strategy is based on the old-fashioned idea of being close to your customers. It’s one embraced by companies such as credit card giant American Express, insurer Humana and government agencies, which sometimes prefer on-shore call centers to handle customer service for sensitive life insurance, financial or health-care products.
“The customer is the king,” Vuppuluri said. “Wherever the customer wants the services to be, we can provide.”
Visitors on visas
At its U.S. sites, Aegis says, 90 percent or more of its workers are American. In that way, Aegis is an exception to the rule. Until now, India-based outsourcing companies have largely brought Indian workers into the United States using H-1B visas and L-1 visas and have been the heaviest users of those programs.
In India’s $60 billion software-exporting industry (which employs roughly 4 million people worldwide), Aegis is competing with companies such as Wipro, Tata Consultancy Services, Genpact, WNS and Infosys. Most are expanding their outsourcing work — from call centers to high-tech consulting and financial services — to the United States. In many cases, it’s a key part of the companies’ growth strategy. But political and economic forces in this country and India complicate things.
Some say the visa practice has hurt U.S. jobs and wages. These new visa categories were created by the Immigration Act of 1990, allowing foreigners to work in the country for up to six years. The aim was to lure high-tech talent. Tech America, an industry trade group, says that the visas are crucial to American innovation, future competitiveness and job creation.
But they have been abused, too. In a study released in 2008, the government found fraud and technical violations on 20.7 percent of H-1B applications. Violations ranged “from document fraud to deliberate misstatements regarding job locations, wages paid and duties performed,” said Donald Neufeld, of the Department of Homeland Security, at a March hearing.
Immigration officials and the State Department have worked to crack down on the fraud.
“There will be, in any situation, an effort to go around the law,” said David T. Donahue, deputy assistant Secretary of State for Visa Services. “Our job is to catch the companies doing that.”
Some lawmakers are looking to curb the practice and to encourage the India-based outsourcing firms to follow Aegis’s model of hiring Americans at U.S. sites. Issuance of regular H-1B visas — 10,200 so far this year — is down 43 percent percent from 2010, according to federal data. Last year, the Obama administration added a roughly $2,000 fee per H-1B visa for large companies, which could be curbing applications.
In the past, if, say, BNY Mellon inked an IT contract with Infosys, Infosys would handle 70 percent of the work in India and send 30 percent of its project staff to the United States on temporary work visas. These Indian workers often live in ethnic enclaves on the outskirts of a city, work long hours and earn less than an American would for the same work.
Companies such as Tata Consultancy Services, Genpact and Infosys are the largest users of the H-1B visa program and have collectively brought as many as 30,000 workers into the country in a year on H-1B or other visas.
Critics of the visa programs, such as Ronil Hira, a public policy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, say the work arrangements can amount to indentured servitude. The workers are often paid “home-country wages” in America. “That’s as low as $8,000 a year” with housing allowances, he says. The employers own the visas — so the workers can’t bargain for wages, and if they lose their job they have to leave the country.
Hira said Indian workers still make up more than 90 percent of most outsourcing companies’ U.S. head counts. He and other critics argue that many of these workers are not more highly skilled than their American counterparts but are simply willing to work for less. “It’s harming American workers,” he said. “It’s taking away their job opportunities, bringing down their wages and harming their working conditions.”
The companies that use the visa programs have faced opposition from U.S. labor unions as well as age-discrimination lawsuits from American tech workers alleging that they were passed over by the hiring practices.
At the same time, as high unemployment lingers and the economic recovery lags, India-based companies have seized on an opportunity to improve their image and expand their U.S. businesses by taking over companies and hiring more U.S. talent.
Rivals for IBM, Accenture
Infosys and others find themselves in a quandary. U.S.-based rivals such as Cognizant, Accenture and IBM are ramping up hiring and offshoring in India, pushing up wages. So Infosys, Tata Consultancy Services and Genpact have had to move into the culturally uncomfortable area of managing Americans.
“What you have going on in India are salary hikes,” said Joseph Vafi, an analyst at Jefferies & Co. in San Francisco. “As these companies get larger and larger, it just makes sense for them to do some hiring in the States.”
Tata Consultancy Services, for example, is ramping up its North American presence in major deals with Citibank, Dow Chemical and Hilton Worldwide. It plans to hire more than 1,000 Americans in 2011 and to base 10,000 of its 185,000 global employees in the country.
“The focus is on building stronger relations with our customers in North America, by far our largest market,” said spokesman Mike McCabe, who added that more than half of the company’s revenue comes from North America. “It’s kind of a natural effort to invest more here.”
Robert Webb, chief information officer at Hilton Worldwide, said Tata Consultancy Services and Infosys increasingly rival the established consulting companies, such as IBM, Accenture and Bain Consulting, in areas such as integrating massive computer systems, developing applications for companies and even strategy consulting. He predicts that the India-based companies “will evolve to be more like one of the traditional consulting firms in the U.S.” by taking on higher-end capabilities such as business planning, industry knowledge and change management. Already, they are “starting to encroach on IBM’s territory, where data centers can be run from other parts of the world.”
He said IBM and Accenture are rapidly hiring talent in India and other emerging markets as a counterstrategy. “They’re all keeping their eyes on wage inflation in low-cost countries” like India, where wages are increasing 10 percent a year.
Hilton hired Tata Consultancy Services in 2009 to take over some back-office operations, such as human resources, financial systems and its intranet portal for the company’s 10 brands and 3,700 hotels. Hilton used to handle this work in-house or with hundreds of small consultants.
Tata Consultancy Services is doing most of the work in Memphis and McClean, where Hilton has offices. Hilton is sharing these best practices with its parent company, private-equity firm Blackstone Group. Using companies with talent around the globe allows Hilton to continue working on projects around the clock and to innovate more quickly.
“While some people are sleeping in the U.S.,” Webb said, “people can be coding in India and vice versa.”
Rebadging U.S. workers
Genpact, the outsourcing company created and spun off by General Electric, doubled its U.S. employment last year, to 2,000 of its 40,000 global employees. Most of that expansion came with Genpact’s contract with drugstore giant Walgreens to take over its accounting services. It bought Walgreens’ accounting center in Danville, Ill., promising to hire there.
Taking over existing employees of another company is called “re-badging.” Indian firms have been uncomfortable managing U.S. workers in the past, Hira said, particularly when Indian workers are working alongside Americans who are paid more. But companies increasingly see rebadging as a necessary way to expand.
Genpact is also hiring at centers in California and Pennsylvania as it aims to expand in the mortgage and regulatory compliance industries and in consumer product, hospital and health-care companies.
“The U.S. became the fastest-growing location for us,” last year, said chief executive V.N. “Tiger” Tyagarajan. “We expect that to continue on this year.”
Bob Kane, treasurer of New York-based textilemaker Westpoint Home, which makes Ralph Lauren linens, uses Genpact for general accounting in India and accounts payable in Mexico. He’s used Genpact’s Pennsylvania office for its accounts receivables work since 2007.
The Pennsylvania office “is the most competent and is the most business-savvy,” he said, noting that it does the work 40 percent more efficiently for less money and with fewer people than his company could do in-house.
“They understand it is important to get the job done and stay the extra hour,” he said. “They get it. They get what we need. We don’t always get the same feeling from” outsourcing contracts abroad.
He pays slightly higher wage rates — $15 an hour — to keep the receivables work in the United States. He said he’s heard from executives at other companies that the quality of work in India is slipping as turnover increases and Indian companies invest less in training, especially if a client isn’t willing to pay higher wages over time. Some U.S. companies don’t want sensitive customer data transmitted abroad. Others are tired of poor service, accents and crackling phone lines.
Managing across cultures
The lower Manhattan branch of Aegis, on Broad Street, is one of the company’s top performers. And Capuana, 41, is hiring. The 11th-floor lobby is crowded with applicants looking for training and jobs, some of them unemployed and on public assistance.
At $12 to $14 an hour with possible monthly bonuses, workers can make four times what call center workers in India do. But Essar executives say it’s worth paying more in wages to leverage a large U.S. presence to gain contracts with banks, health-care companies and governments that require the work to be done here.
Some workers at the call center, such as Mary Auguste-George, eventually move up the ranks. Originally from St. Lucia, she started as a phone rep, moved to supervisor, then trainer and and is now payroll manager of the lower Manhattan division. Capuana calls her “a diamond in the rough who just hits the ground running.”
Capuana, a stocky man who prefers jeans and wears his hair long, uses a motivational-speaker’s approach to get workers to show up on time and do their best. “You really need to leave everything you have on that phone call,” he says, walking amid the 3-foot-by-4-foot cubicles with signs that read “Perfect Service” and “One Member at a Time.”
He pins pictures of the top 12 performers on a “Circle of Leaders” bulletin board each quarter. They receive free movie tickets, have greater dress-down privileges and eat free lunch. The practice has been adopted by Aegis on a corporate-wide level, he says.
Many Aegis employees at the site are not very aware that they work for an Indian company. The Dallas headquarters, though, celebrates India’s independence on Aug. 15. And the call center workers have made music videos for each other: The Indian office performed a Bollywood song, and workers at the U.S. office danced to the Black Eyed Peas.
But with all its globalism, Aegis also has its culture clashes. Some managers from India have a hard time understanding what motivates U.S. workers and why they are less-educated than their Indian peers. One Indian-born manager said he thinks that the U.S. standard of living has spoiled Americans and that they take less pride in their work. In other words, he says, they are lazy.
The India executives are also puzzled by the appeal of dress-down practices. “We don’t do that” in India, says Ramya Devi Ramachandran, 27, a former administrative assistant at the lower Manhattan office who worked for Aegis in India before moving to New York.
Essar and Aegis, however, want to step up the cross-sharing this year, shuffling dozens of U.S. Aegis employees to Goa and Bangalore in India to help handle large U.S. government contracts. Aegis executives say the cross-continent exchange will help India’s call centers keep up during peak Medicare enrollment season and aid the company’s cross-cultural efforts.
A few employees from the lower Manhattan call center are applying for the temporary transfer. “I’ve never been to India,” said Keith Swindell, 39, a trainer. “I’d enjoy traveling and getting international experience.”
Glader is a journalist based in New York.
Quigley-Hogan was unemployed for 10 years because she couldn't hold down a traditional job, she says. She has rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, a disease that causes severe fatigue.
"It was hard to get to a job," Quigley-Hogan says. "The idea of going through a regular schedule of getting up and getting ready for work, I would be exhausted."
She worked in customer service for more than 20 years, so two years ago, she was thrilled to land this job where she can work from home.
Lost In Translation: Call Center Blues
American customers say they have more trouble getting inquiries resolved efficiently when they're routed to call centers outside the U.S.
The Contact Center Satisfaction Index is based on online surveys of more than 1,500 adults. Respondents called a contact center within the past month and spoke with a customer service representative. CFI Group used the American Customer Satisfaction Index methodology to conduct the research.
Source: CFI Group
Credit: Stephanie d’Otreppe/NPR
Rethinking Overseas Outsourcing
For years, Americans have had their phone calls about credit card bills and broken cell phones handled by people in the Philippines or India. But American firms are starting to bring call centers back to the U.S. — and this time around, they are hiring more people to work in their own homes.
Ten years ago, it made a lot of sense to outsource these jobs overseas. But that's changing. Increasingly, companies that want to outsource their customer service jobs are happy with these domestic arrangements.
High inflation and double-digit annual raises in some sectors are pushing up the cost of labor in India. At the same time wages in the U.S. are falling and companies are rethinking the trade-offs associated with outsourcing.
Weighing Costs And Woes
Richard Crespin, director of the Human Resources Outsourcing Association, says when companies decide whether to outsource overseas they have to weigh the costs as well as "the inconvenience of having something distant from you and not close in proximity — what I would call the pain-in-the-neck factor."
He says when wages drop in the company's home economy, those companies are less likely to outsource these jobs to other countries.
Experts say outsourcing is still accelerating for jobs in IT services and manufacturing. Phil Fersht, an outsourcing analyst, says even before the recession started, companies were starting to realize that offshoring wasn't the best option for other services.
In some cases, workers in India are making only about 15 percent less than workers in Nebraska, he says. That's the threshold where companies start thinking about whether it's worth it to hire an American worker instead of a foreign one.
Who's Taking Your Call?
American consumers expressed varying levels of satisfaction with call centers depending on whether the center is perceived to be overseas or in the U.S., according to a new report by the CFI Group. Here, a look at some of the findings:
— Customer satisfaction with calls perceived to be handled in the U.S. was more than one-fifth higher than with calls perceived to be handled outside the country.
— Callers said one of the biggest disparities between foreign and American call centers was the ease of understanding the customer service agent.
— Consumers report that fewer calls are now being handled by agents outside the U.S. Nine percent of consumers say that their calls were handled by an agent outside the U.S. in 2010, down from 11 percent in 2009.
— Joshua Brockman
Source: CFI Group's 2010 Contact Center Satisfaction Index
Thousands Of Home Workers
Home workers, such as Quigley-Hogan, represent one of the cheapest models for customer service. There are an estimated 60,000 people doing call center work from home.
"It provides a lower cost point than other traditional means of onshore customer service," says Chris Carrington, who runs Alpine Access, the Denver-based company that Quigley-Hogan works for. Carrington says the low overhead of having home-based workers allows him to charge 20 percent less for the same services provided by brick-and-mortar call centers in the U.S.
"We don't have big buildings and we don't have all of that infrastructure cost, and so we're able to pay our people more and as well as lower our price for the customers we serve," he says.
Even with these cost-cutting measures, American workers are still the more expensive option. But industry watchers say so-called home sourcing will continue to grow as companies look for quality that used to be harder to afford.
"In the last 10 years, over one million jobs have been sent to India or the Philippines in the customer service call center space alone," said Angela Selden, CEO of Arise Virtual Solutions. "What companies discovered was that, while that was great from a cost perspective, what they were losing was the connection with the customer."
Within the year, Selden's company expects to double the 18,000 customer service agents it provides for its corporate customers in the United States. Arise clients include companies involved in telecommunications, computers, financial services and travel.
The customer service agents work as independent contractors, usually from their own homes. According to Selden, pay ranges from $8 per hour for answering a switchboard to $25 per hour for commission-based sales of cruises or high-end equipment.
The workforce includes college students and retirees with technical skills and flexible schedules, as well as workers facing unemployment or reduced hours.
"The economy kind of went south," said Melvin White, a product manager who reluctantly took early retirement before becoming an Arise contractor. "Looking for a job when you're over 60, you don't quite have the same flexibility. You don't get the same response."
These customer service agents often work for less than they made in previous careers. But with unemployment rates so high, many are previousgrateful to have a paycheck. The ability to work from home and set their own hours adds to the job's attraction.
"It doesn't matter what you're wearing," said customer service agent Patricia Marshall. "You can be wearing your jeans and T-shirt. But we are going to put on that beautiful smile when they get on the phone." Marshall said callers are pleasantly surprised when they find out they're speaking to an American.
"They want to know that you are in the United States because they want to know that their business, or whatever they're paying for-- membership or whatever it is -- is staying here," she said.
The process of bringing customer service jobs back to the U.S. is often called "reverse outsourcing" or "homesourcing." Arise's CEO said customer service agents familiar with the local culture, customs and dialect tend to be more accurate than someone speaking broken English
on the other side of the world.
"Even though the rate per minute might be less expensive offshore, it's actually less expensive to have somebody in market answering those calls," Selden said. "They can answer them in a much more efficient and effective manner."
Call it phonesourcing.
Phonesourcing basically means contracting with a private firm to hire, train and manage a small army of local or regional call handlers. That enables companies to ramp up or tamp down their services flexibly, without the political controversies that are associated with outsourced, overseas call centers. Handing off call handling isn't new — people have been grinding their teeth on hold for outsourced help since the dawn of voice mail more than a decade ago. What's new is the growing scope and scale of the U.S. home-based call sector. Datamonitor projections show the number of U.S. home-based call agents growing at an annual clip of 20% between 2009 and 2012, from about 50,000 to more than 80,000. That's much faster than the growth rate for calling centers in India (4%) and the Philippines (9%), though foreign outsourcing remains a more popular and cheaper corporate option.
(See 10 perfect jobs for the recession — and after.)
Home-based call centers in the U.S. handle both routine calls — questions about product prices, bank balances or resetting a password — and more complex ones, for technical questions, debt collection and business sales. They also provide answers by instant message or e-mail. Because call handlers are instructed not to mention that they are working for a third party, most customers of the particular bank, wireless firm or retailer have no idea they are not speaking with a company employee.
The hiring firm drafts the script and dictates what greeting and style the call handlers adopt. Agents are most eagerly sought after in the wireless industry, in which increasingly complex smart phones result in bewildered calls about new features or spotty service.
Phonesourcing (also known as homesourcing) is drawing new attention from Fortune 500 companies that are retreating from cost-motivated overseas outsourcing as foreign labor markets tighten, currencies appreciate and home-based call centers offer increasingly competitive local call handling. If an experienced technical specialist who knows the local lingo and understands regional business concerns can manage customers' calls, the argument goes, why route them halfway around the world?
Demand for home-based call agents is also rising among retailers, financial institutions and service organizations. Pittsburgh, Pa., recently suffered its snowiest February ever, stranding many local AAA employees during repeated storms. AAA, which helps get stuck drivers back on the road, shoveled off many of its calls to Alpine Access, one of the fastest-growing companies in the home-based calling business.
Because Alpine's employees were working from home, the storm didn't impact their availability. "These aren't agents at home with a TV playing or a crying baby in the background," says Steve Popovich, director of automotive services for AAA's Pittsburgh operation. "The service quality is excellent, and when storms hit and our call boards light up, they can add people quickly." Hiring and training new call handlers can take about two months, but once trained, handlers are ready for extra shifts when necessary.
Boston, MA (PRWEB) July 6, 2010 -- Reversing the trend of “offshoring” their contact centers to countries like India and the Philippines, many American companies—AT&T, Dell, Priceline.com, Expedia, HP, and Monster.com—are bringing their contact centers back to the United States, in a process inevitably tagged “onshoring.” However, rather than locating their agents in bricks-and-mortar physical call centers, 46% of U.S. organizations surveyed in a 2007 study employed work-at-home agents in “virtual contact centers.” Research by Datamonitor in 2007 and IDC in 2006 projected the number of home-based agents to grow 36.4% annually from 2007-2012, to reach 300,000 by the end of 2010.
Customer service experts point out that home-based American agents possess two characteristics that both customers and employers appreciate. Françoise Tourniaire, who runs FT Works, a contact center consulting firm in Los Altos, California, points out the cultural aspects. “Although foreign accents can be minimized, they can never be eliminated. Americans prefer to talk with other Americans.” And it’s not just the accents. “American agents understand the latest slang, and know what a customer is referring to when they mention ‘that oil thing.’”
But employers most appreciate that home-based agents deliver high-quality results at the lowest cost. National Telecommuting Institute, Inc., has placed Americans with disabilities in contact center jobs for over 15 years. Because NTI receives government subsidies for helping people with disabilities find work, and the employers who hire through NTI receive generous tax credits, NTI can go toe-to-toe with any for-profit contact center staffing agency on pricing. But Executive Director M.J. Willard is proudest of her organization’s focus on quality. “We think about quality metrics differently from anybody else in the industry. We don’t sell call centers; we sell quality staffing. We manage Quality.”
Their customers agree. Erin Blunt, President of Vforce Auto Club Renewals endorsed this strategy as helping her company deliver excellent service to its own customers. “We've been a happy NTI client for more than 3 years. We've got very high quality standards, and during that entire time NTI has provided agents to staff our virtual internal call center who consistently meet -- and beat -- our expectations. Our call volumes continue to increase, and we continue to use NTI because they've shown they can keep up with us.”
NTI, a 501(c)(3) non-profit disability organization, pioneered staffing virtual call centers with Americans with disabilities who work from home. It provides highly qualified “NTI Certified (TM)” American-speaking agents to both commercial and government organizations, such as the IRS. For more information, visit http://www.NTIcentral.Org.
Alan W. Hubbard, COO
National Telecommuting Institute, Inc.
Tel: 800-619-0111 X-307
National Telecommuting Intitute
1-800-619-0111 ext. 307
The bad news: Fierce competition means your odds of landing one of these jobs are poor. And if you succeed, you will probably take a pay cut.
For companies, home-based employees, independent contractors and freelancers are helping cut costs and improve customer service. Full-time, home-based freelancers and independent contractors in the U.S. are expected to increase by 200,000 workers to 11 million by the end of 2009, says Ray Boggs, a vice president of IDC, Framingham, Mass., a market-research firm; he sees another 200,000-worker increase in 2010.
While that is a mere blip on the radar in an economy that has been losing nearly that many jobs in a month, the trend means a lot to the individuals who are benefiting from it. They are avoiding dreaded commutes, doing volunteer work, pursuing college degrees or caring for family. And they are performing increasingly complex tasks from home, from reading MRIs to helping clients search for Bigfoot, the mythic wilderness monster.
"We are seeing a general broadening of the work-at-home landscape," says Christine Durst, chief executive of a work-at-home Web site and co-author of a new guidebook on the topic.
Avoiding Work-at-Home Scams
Steer clear of pitches that:
Require up-front "processing" or "intake" fees
Say no experience is necessary
Promise enormous income
Use the words "work-at-home" in the pitch
Lack a specific job description
Ask for personal financial data
Picture tropical paradises or fast cars
Stress that only a few openings exist
Source: "Work at Home Now," by Christine Durst and Michael Haaren
Applicants are stacking up by the hundreds of thousands, however. Based on my survey of a dozen companies that use home workers, your odds of actually landing one of these positions range from about 25-to-1 to 300-to-1.
ARO Contact Center, Kansas City, Mo., which employs just 200 home auditors and sales and customer-service workers, gets 1,000 resumes a week, says Michael Amigoni, chief operating officer. West Corp., Omaha, with 14,000 active agents handling customer-service and other calls, hires only 0.5% to 1% of its 4,500 weekly applicants. And Alpine Access, Denver, with 2,800 home customer-service, sales and tech-support agents, hires about only 2% of the 100,000 people who apply each year.
"It takes a lot of luck to get these positions," says Tammie Deweever, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a home customer-service agent for LiveOps, Santa Clara, Calif. "You have to be good at what you do." Ms. Deweever has a college degree in marketing and worked as a mortgage broker before joining LiveOps last January. For her, job flexibility means being able to be home for her children, 17, 15 and 8; she often works split shifts around their needs, answering calls from TV viewers wanting to buy products from juicers to jeans.
Many skilled at-home professionals and managers earn less than a corporate salary. Less-skilled customer-service or sales work usually pays about $8 to $15 an hour, ranging as high as $25 or more with incentives or premiums. Some companies pay by the minute or hour spent on the phone, while others pay by the shift. The jobs vary by company from full-time employee positions with benefits to part-time independent contractor positions.
And applicants must be wary of scam artists. Ms. Durst, Woodstock, Conn., who screens work-at-home pitches for her Web site, RatRaceRebellion.com, says she is finding only one legitimate job among every 60 pitches she examines. In 2006, the odds weren't quite as bad: She was finding one legitimate job for every 31 pitches vetted.
Many victims of work-at-home fraud have sent money, only to receive worthless products or leads, or nothing at all, in return; others who disclose too much personal information have fallen victim to theft from credit-card or checking accounts.
But those who win the work-at-home lottery reap diverse benefits. Intent on avoiding a long commute, Heather Hedden, a Raleigh, N.C., marketing specialist, spent a year looking for her current spot, as a home-based concierge for VIPdesk, Alexandria, Va. The position was worth the wait, she says. She enjoys using her research skills to help clients find theater or sports tickets, vintage wines or travel services. When a client asked for help looking for Bigfoot, she found an outfitter with a track record of taking like-minded customers on hikes through areas of reported sightings, she says.
After 19 years in private practice, radiologist Steven Brick, Potomac, Md., began working from home for Virtual Radiologic, Eden Prairie, Minn. The setup confers both the freedom to focus on his work, without distractions, and the flexibility to serve as a volunteer at the National Zoo answering visitors' questions, he says. Virtual Radiologic's radiologists, who work as independent contractors reading X-rays and other images for hospitals and other medical clients, have increased to 140 from 34 in 2004, a spokeswoman says.
Home-based work enables newlywed Stacey Anderson, 30, Ballston Spa, N.Y., to tackle numerous roles. Since landing a customer-service post last summer as a contractor for VIPdesk, Ms. Anderson has been able to bend her work hours around her husband's rotating shifts on his job. In addition, she squeezes in a full-time course load as a college student.
Such intangible incentives are drawing skilled, experienced people. Mark Frei, a senior vice president of West, says 80% of West's home agents have some college education, compared with 30% of those who work in office-based call centers.
Vanessa Torres, 35, San Antonio, Texas, had a bachelor's degree in business and 16 years' management experience before signing on last January as a home agent for West. She likes controlling her hours, and works only when her two young children are in school, she says.
Expansion of home-based work is likely to continue. Among the 12 companies I contacted, all were planning to recruit more home workers. Lionbridge Technologies, Waltham, Mass., a provider of multilingual services including translation and product testing, is taking on new freelancers to assess "search relevance"—that is, to ensure Internet searches yield items suitable to particular locales, a spokeswoman says.
Alpine Access, Denver, is recruiting 500 more home agents and expects to add 2,000 in 2010, says Chief Executive Christopher Carrington. LiveOps, with 20,000 home agents for retailing, insurance and other companies, added about 4,000 agents in the past two months. Arise Virtual Solutions, Miramar, Fla., with a home-agent pool of 9,800, is seeking 3,000 agents for the peak holiday and cruise seasons, a spokeswoman says. Michael DeSalles, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan, a research and consulting firm, sees home agents growing by at least 30% a year.
Sites which link clients with skilled freelancers also are seeing a surge in demand for virtual workers with a widening range of professional and technical skills; oDesk.com's monthly postings, including graphic design, software, administrative and other projects, rose to 28,000 in the past 30 days, three times year-earlier levels. Monthly hiring on Elance.com is up more than 40% from a year ago.
As more companies allow people to work from anywhere via the Internet, says a spokeswoman for Lionbridge, "we are convinced that this is the new model of work."