That persistent stranger you hung up on last night just might be your next-door neighbor.
By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
Telemarketers. They're the people we love to hate.
Sitcoms lampoon them. Comedians mock them. Commercials trumpet household products designed to block their calls. And just last week, Pennsylvania created a "do-not-call" list to protect consumers from them.
But there's another side to telemarketing in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys.
Here it means work -- more than 3,500 jobs -- and it's pumping millions of dollars into the region's economy.
Local development experts say they don't like their dinner interrupted by a telephone solicitor any more than the next guy, but from an economic standpoint, call centers are a big plus.
"There are communities around the country trying to lure the kind of centers we have," said Walter Good, a business attraction manager for the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber. "This is an emerging industry, and we're happy to be a part of it."
The pay: Starting pay in local call centers generally ranges from $6 to $12 an hour, depending upon previous experience, and most offer bonuses, commissions and shift differentials. Several offer 401K plans, paid vacations and health benefits.
Nobody's saying call center jobs will replace the thousands of high-paying industrial jobs the region has lost in recent years. Good said development officials are always targeting manufacturers, distributors and other big industrial employers.
But telemarketing and related businesses are providing new opportunities for jobs, training and promotions -- opportunities that weren't here 10 years ago, Good said. "I view it as another piece of the puzzle."
In Niles, for example, the call center that telecommunication giant MCI opened two years ago in a former Kmart building on Youngstown-Warren Road has become the city's largest employer.
Mayor Ralph Infante Jr. said the center's 1,100 workers contribute more than $350,000 in income taxes to city coffers every year.
Beat out Pittsburgh: The Mahoning Valley won out over Pittsburgh in a battle to land the massive, $13 million call center in 1999. Infante said the region's available work force was a selling point, and state and local leaders also assembled a generous incentive package of tax abatements, tax credits, and grants to help pay for training and equipment.
MCI has proven itself worthy of the effort, Infante said. "They've done everything they said they would do."
New Castle Mayor Tim Fulkerson has similar praise for the AT & amp;T National Relay Center, which opened about four years ago in the vacant Towne Mall Galleria downtown. He said New Castle was in competition with 17 other Pennsylvania municipalities for the center, which relays telephone messages for the deaf and those who have impaired speech or hearing.
"The city benefits from the wage taxes, and it's created more than 200 jobs," Fulkerson said, "but what people don't think about is how those workers support all the other local businesses downtown. "
New Castle worked closely with state and local development officials to win the center, Fulkerson said, offering an incentive package that included a $250,000 federal Enterprise Zone grant to pay for parking lot refurbishing, exterior lighting and other security-related improvements to the site.
Labor: Labor statistics indicating the region's sizable percentage of unemployed college graduates and the fact that New Castle is near several colleges and universities helped to strengthen the city's position.
Fulkerson said more than 1,000 people showed up to apply when the center first started interviewing.
"AT & amp;T is a great calling card for the city. It's a myth that these people are going to work for minimum wage and stuck in little cubicles eating bread and water," he said.
"You can't be a moron and work at a call center. These people have to have the ability to speak well and some computer knowledge. Besides that, they need great manners. They have to be able to say "thank you" when somebody's not interested."
Telemarketing, or selling over the telephone, is just one facet of the work conducted by the phone centers in the region.
Incoming calls: Several, including MCI, the 300-employee Cellular One center in Boardman and the 475-worker Liberty Mutual Insurance customer service center in Neshannock Township, Pa., are wired to take incoming calls from customers around the country.
Employees can troubleshoot consumers' billing problems, take orders and make service plan changes.
Teleperformance, an Austintown center with 300 employees, is equipped to handle both incoming and outgoing calls for its customers, said branch recruiter Laura Wagner.
"We have to be flexible, but our employees don't get as burned out because they're not doing the same thing month after month," she said
Based in Paris with a United States headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, Teleperformance spent $2.1 million on renovations, telephone and computer equipment when it moved to Westchester Drive in 2000.
TNS Intersearch in Liberty specializes in market research, taking opinion polls for network news programs, magazines and major consumer product makers.
"When we say we're not selling anything, we mean it," said Dave Sluka, center manager.
With 300 full- and part-time employees locally, the TNS center is one of 200 that its parent company, Taylor Nelson Sofres of Horsham, Pa., operates worldwide. The company says it is the fourth-largest marketing information group in the world.
Akron-based InfoCision, which employs more than 700 in its Boardman and Austintown call centers, has five divisions operating locally.
Callers in the religious, nonprofit, political and residential divisions call homes and businesses seeking contributions or recruiting volunteers; the commercial division handles inbound calls and makes telemarketing calls for companies.
InfoCision built its first Mahoning County call center in 1997, a 23,000-square-foot building at the Interstate 80 interchange in Austintown. The company recently opened two more centers, both in Boardman, and expects to bring its total local employment to 800 by summer.
Credit-card debt recovery is the specialty at Exterra Credit Recovery, a company based near San Francisco with a call center in downtown Youngstown.
Dennis Sholl, chief executive, said the company had three call centers at one time but closed the ones in Baton Rouge and California two years ago. The Youngstown center was its most productive, costs were lower here, and there was a ready labor pool.
Sholl said Exterra's 120 employees undergo six weeks of training and are subject to an intense internal monitoring process to assure that they maintain the company's integrity code.
"We don't assume that anybody is a deadbeat," Sholl said. "We act as a consultant, help identify the reason the debt hasn't been paid, and then find a solution or set up a payment plan."