In a hive of cubicles at the Dialog Direct offices in Highland Park, Mich., Keontay Kelley and other employees answer calls through headsets.
While they work, LED signs on the walls flash reminders: “Manners Matter,” “Phone Etiquette,” “Yes Ma’am/Sir,” “Thank You” and “I Apologize.” The room buzzes with conversation, the sound of hundreds of metro Detroiters earning paychecks.
“I was looking for a job,” said Kelley, 26, of Detroit. “This did it.”
After years of sending call center jobs to India, the Philippines, Mexico and other countries, companies are bringing them back to the U.S. An estimated 5 million Americans are employed in call centers.
The trend, industry watchers said, is driven by changes in technology, rising overseas labor costs – and customers demanding better service.
Dialog Direct, which employs about 800 people in its headquarters, announced recently it is planning to add 500 more. Another call center company, S&P Data, said it plans to add 420 employees at its offices.
So far this year, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. estimated, at least 1,400 call center jobs have been created in the state.
In New York State, the Department of Labor does not specifically break out call center jobs, because so many of them are part of larger corporations. But customer service representatives, telemarketers and collections agents account for 20,800 jobs in the Buffalo Niagara region.
“There has been a lot of growth in these types of fields, and the vast majority of that growth has been in call centers,” said John Slenker, an economist for the state Labor Department.
The state projects those same fields to grow to 21,540 over the next six years – a net gain of 740 positions.
“We’re all about more and better jobs,” said Amy Cell, senior vice president for talent enhancement at the MEDC. “Call centers offer great entry-level opportunities for new college graduates or people trying to get a foothold in customer service fields.”
Kelley, a Ferris State graduate, has worked at Dialog Direct for less than a year.
He said he enjoys working there. Some calls can be frustrating. But, he said, the job lets him work inside an office, wear professional attire – and best of all, the work lets him feel like he’s helping solve people’s problems, he said.
“I like to be the knight in shining armor,” he said.
Doug Kearney, Dialog Direct’s president and CEO, said, “A lot of jobs are coming back to the U.S.” In the next few years, he said, he expects more growth in the industry as customers increasingly turn to social media.
Companies began sending call center jobs overseas years ago because they sought to reduce labor costs, said Matt Zemon, chairman of the nonprofit group Jobs4America, based in Chapel Hill, N.C.
But in recent years, as overseas labor costs have increased, companies have been reversing some of those decisions, he said. Some companies also found that customers were unhappy with the service from overseas call centers.
By Zemon’s count, about 180,000 call center jobs were created nationally in 2012 and 2013.
Paul Stockford, the director of research for the National Association of Call Centers in Hattiesburg, Miss., said the nonprofit membership group estimates there are about 66,000 call centers in the U.S., with that number expected to grow.
Companies are still using overseas centers to handle sales calls involving low-price, low-margin items and also to address calls seeking technical help. “The higher the value of the customer, the more likely the job will be in the U.S.,” he said.
If a customer is confused or dissatisfied, it could cost a company sales, and they don’t want to miss out on opportunities, especially when it comes to big-ticket items. Stockford pointed to airlines, which are selling plane tickets worth hundreds, even thousands, of dollars.
United Airlines has a reservation center in Dearborn, Mich.
In addition, he said, though many call center jobs are entry-level, they require skills – and expertise – that can lead to advancement.
“Lots of people make a career out of it,” he said. “Other people get burned out. If you’re picking up a phone, and you’ve got someone screaming in your ear for something you didn’t do, it can be very frustrating.”
Last year, General Motors started moving call center jobs from overseas to the U.S.
The company employs nearly 500 agents at a call center and another 250 customer support employees. It also has a center in Cleveland, Tenn., that employs 600 and a center in Knoxville, Tenn., with about 150 employees.
“It’s a job that requires patience,” said Kelley, who hopes to make a long career out of it.