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Thousands of such jobs in Mississippi

Offshore again: call centers eye Asia

The largest economic development triumph in 2001 for Jackson County was landing a Cingular Wireless call center in Ocean Springs that employs more than 700. But with call centers popping up all over Asia, particularly in India and China, there are concerns that jobs at call centers could be headed the way of the cut-and-sew operations that have left the state in droves: offshore.

While the state has been busy trying to replace jobs lost in manufacturing, there hasn’t been much attention placed on the possibility of losing white-collar jobs overseas.

Companies can be reluctant to discuss the issue. When contacted for information about any possible current or future plans by Cingular Wireless to use foreign call centers, the company said, “No comment.”

BellSouth said it currently doesn’t have any call center employees in India, and that vendors who provide technical support for their DSL and dial-up Internet services are domestic. Patsy Tolleson, director of external affairs for BellSouth, said employment in their Jackson consumer call center has increased from 229 to 322 in the past year.

“BellSouth is committed to providing the highest quality service to our customers as cost effectively as possible,” Tolleson said. “We can’t speak for other companies, such as the vendors we partner with, but our selection of vendors will continue to be based on expertise, quality of service and cost.”

The state has tried to attract data and information processing centers in recent years by providing incentives. But companies can only qualify if they pay in excess of the state or county wage rates. Sherry Vance, director of communications for the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA), said that MDA encourages companies to pay higher wages to residents.

“At MDA, we are working hard to recruit higher paying, quality industries while continuing to provide services and programs to our existing industries,” Vance said.

Call center jobs are just one concern. There are also estimates that one in 10 information technology (IT) jobs in the U.S. could be lost to overseas firms employing cheaper labor by the end of 2004. A Forrester research group study has predicted 3.3 million jobs representing $136 billion in wages will shift to overseas workers willing to accept far lower salaries than American workers by the year 2015.

“If you live in a rich nation in the English-speaking world, and most of your work involves a computer or a telephone, don’t expect to have a job in five years’ time,” states a recent article published in The Guardian newspaper in England. “Almost every large company which relies upon remote transactions is starting to dump its workers and hire a cheaper labour force overseas.”

American newspapers are also writing about the trend.

“America’s white-collar workers should not feel too smug,” says an editorial by Rowland Nethaway, editor of the Waco (Texas) Tribune-Herald. “They can be replaced by cheaper foreign workers. That process is underway.”

Nethaway said America’s high-tech industries are hiring more and more foreign workers to write computer programs, design electronics and run research and development projects. “And these are jobs in the United States that normally would go to skilled American workers with college degrees,” he said.

Pete Walley, director of long-range planning for Mississippi, said the trend towards white-collar jobs going offshore could be particularly troublesome for Mississippi.

“I think it is a serious problem,” Walley said. “The skill levels of our people make us more vulnerable than many of our competitor states. I think we are under serious attack. I really do.”

It used to be thought that the “thinking jobs” were safe from foreign competition. For years now, manufacturing workers have had to compete against other manufacturing workers anywhere in the world. The paradigm shift currently occurring, experts say, is that white-collar workers now for the first time are being forced to compete for their jobs with their counterparts anywhere in the world.

People in India have good English and clerical skills, and earn average wages of $160 to $300 per month. Some call center companies in India are willing to take calls for only 25


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