It seems like every day for the past year I have found myself in a conversation with a friend or acquaintance who wants to apply for a job in a call center.
Since a conversation usually requires both parties to voice an opinion, I usually repeated some common public view on the subject without really thinking much about it. But, as it is usually the case with such matters, it wasn’t until a close friend of mine pursued one of these jobs that I started to really learn about this industry by asking the appropriate questions of people who worked there.
Call centers—or business process outsourcing (BPO)—first came to Nicaragua around 2008, when SITEL, the biggest company working in this country’s costumer service business, opened its doors and offered attractive job opportunities for Nicaraguans with a certain required skill set.
“We don’t necessarily expect all of our employees are going to want to spend the next 20 years in the call center industry, but you will find that the skill that you learn in this industry will help you in your professional careers no matter where you go in the future, because you are using computer skills, customer service skills and problem-solving skills,” said Val Vandergrifth, country manager of SITEL, in a TV news report that aired on Channel 8 last year.
While all of this is true, the obvious skill set required to work on this industry is fluency in English. So how big is the employable workforce for Nicaragua’s call center industry?
Every year there are hundreds of university graduates who cannot find jobs in their field of expertise, so they turn to the call centers to gain some work experience and earn a paycheck to support themselves and their families on what is considered a good salary by Nicaraguan standards.
The problem is, as Federico Qadea of Accedo Technologies explains, “The personnel we employ here consists in a large part of high school graduates.”
My generation is almost three years out of high school, so we were first in line to reap the benefits of this new opportunity. And indeed, many have. With that experience, many of my friends can now testify to the perils and benefits of a call center job, and they can compare expectations with reality.
The truth is, there is a great variety of reasons why high school graduates decide to take a call center job—everything from rebellion and independence, to the more selfless motive of supporting their family. Five high school classmates and friends of mine have worked at call centers in the past year, and all of them have quit.
“At first it’s really fun, the first two months are the best,” say my friend, Silvia Pastora, who is now a business student at UAM. “But if you want to work there and pursue your career competitively at the same time, that is a big mistake in my opinion. If you work full time, after a certain point, you’ll feel like you’re drowning—it creates too much pressure.”
Ana, another ex-employee, told me she had to take fewer university classes because the call center work scheduling is not flexible. Ultimately she quit because of a mandated change of schedule to her working hours; she appealed because her work schedule conflicted with her class hours, but her bosses were unwilling to budge and so she quit.
When asked about the call center culture, my friends emphasize that it’s really easy money if you don’t have homework or anything else that conflicts with your work schedule. But there is also a lot of bias when it comes to promotions; it is very hard to climb up the company ladder without connections, which makes it difficult for most people to view the phone-jockeying as anything more than a temporary job.
“Most of the other workers are adults who are supporting their families. While most of the people are nice, it is very, very competitive—I mean a lot of them would rat you out if you avoid even one call, but I guess that’s how it is,” says my friend Alejandra.
An architecture student who came into the job with the mindset of using it as a stepping stone to fulfill her career goals, Alejandra is on the other end of the spectrum. She needed a good, very expensive computer for her class work and future career, and while she agreed that the work was tiring and hard, it did give her an opportunity to earn cash that was not available to students her age in the past.
Call centers represent a great chance for Nicaraguans, and it has no doubt improved the quality of life of families around the capital. But, as I have learned from my friends, it is not a commitment to be taken lightly. In some instances, it can end up crippling our future opportunities if it causes us to neglect our career goals or higher learning.
My advice to my cohorts is to always examine your motives and your objectives when applying for a call center job. Decide if you are capable of shouldering the burden of such work and juggling it with your other career goals.