India's Call Centers Face Talent Shortage

Could your sinking customer satisfaction numbers have something to do with the early closing time for bars in Bangalore? If your call center is based in India, they just might.

India's Call Center Jobs Go Begging, featured in a recent edition of Time magazine, describes how India's college grads and other job hunters are turning their backs on help-desk gigs: "Young people say it is no longer worthwhile going through sleepless nights serving customers halfway around the world. They have better jobs opportunities in other fields." In response to student complaints about what are described as a tiring, stressful, dead-end jobs, the article says some college officials have gone as far as banning call center recruiters from campus.

The entire outsourcing industry (business process, IT, and knowledge process included) is facing a well-publicized talent squeeze, with call centers getting hit hardest. NASSCOM president Kirin Karnik says India's BPO providers are facing intense competition for employees from the retail, airlines, and hospitality sectors, which now pay better.

And then there's the closing time problem to which I alluded. A few years ago, Bangalore put an ordinance in place that effectively shuts down all pubs and "entertainment" establishments at 11:30 p.m. Officials had their reasons -- closing go-go bars and curbing drunk driving. But if you're a young 20-something pulling a graveyard shift at 24/7 Customer, you're out of luck. As Cliff Justice, head of globalization for outsourcing advisor EquaTerra, told me: "There used to be this whole nightlife culture that revolved around the call centers. Now, if you're working the night shift, your social life is just shot."

It's been an amazing -- and amazingly quick -- decline for the job once held up as a indicator of India's increasing fortunes. "Once upon a time, they were best jobs to have," says Justice, who's been observing at the Indian services industry since the late 90s. "It's not the best job anymore."

Call it the downside of India moving up the value chain.

Part of the problem is surely the nature of the work. I once worked in a call center of sorts, dialing for dollars for my college's alumni fund. I barely made it through a semester. It was brutal. Five hours a night felt like forever. I gladly fled for a job waiting tables, where the abuse was a little more tempered and the take-home (with tips) made it all a little more tolerable.

That college telemarketing job is a dream compared to the job description in the Time piece: abusive and racists remarks from angry overseas customers. It may not be sweatshop work, but it isn't always pretty. "In an infamous example two years ago, a Philadelphia-based radio show host pretending to order hair beads from an Indian call center operator berated her as a 'dirty rat eater,'" the article recalls. Employees last six month to a year in call center positions, if they apply for the job at all. I don't blame them. Who needs it?

You do. That's the problem.

The Time article points out that these jobs remain attractive for graduates of less prestigious schools and quotes an HR officer for one BPO shop saying shey'll have no problem filling 5,000 call center positions this year. Would she say otherwise? I'm not sure.

And there are of other places besides India to source call center work. The U.S., for one. But even offshore, there are plenty of regions happy to do just BPO for now. The Philippines, for example, continues to market itself as a pure BPO hot spot. I just spoke to the new head of Mexico operations for Genpact (the Indian BPO/IT services provider that was spun off as an independent company by GE in 2005). He indicated that Mexico may not be quite ready for prime-time when it comes to higher-end IT work, but he's perfectly happy to provide great BPO services like transaction processing, data entry, and telephone services (in English, he says, with the Spanish for free).

But what happens when Mexico "moves up the value chain"?

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