Treasure Valley call centers: The future is calling, and calling

Can the call-center industry sustain its rapid rise in Treasure Valley?

zkyle@idahostatesman.comAugust 20, 2013 

Bill Dickey, a customer retention agent, has been a DirecTV employee for a decade and plans to retire there. “The pay’s good, the benefits are good. And the people I work with — that’s the best part of the whole thing.”

KATHERINE JONES — kjones@idahostatesman.com

The Treasure Valley was becoming a hotbed for call centers before Maximus announced plans to come here, but the health care support provider’s plans to hire 1,800 employees would make it the Valley’s biggest call center yet.

Nearly 5,600 people worked for 34 call centers in the Valley last year, according to the Idaho Department of Labor. The department said 400 prospective employees attended eight Maximus job fairs in late July throughout the Valley.

Maximus, a Virginia-based government contractor that specializes in health and welfare, hopes to hire 1,800 workers by the October completion of its retrofit of a 180,000-square-foot building on the Hewlett-Packard campus in west Boise. The workers will handle customer calls about the upcoming health insurance marketplaces in several states, perhaps including Idaho. The marketplaces, or exchanges, are places where people and businesses can buy insurance to comply with the insurance requirement under President Obama’s health reform law.

More centers may follow. Nancy Lemas, director of Boise real estate brokerage KW Commercial, said she fields two or three inquiries a week about site availability.

CHECK OUT THIS MAP AND HELP US FINISH IT

We could find no publicly available directory of call centers in the Treasure Valley, so we are compiling our own in an interactive map. We need your help to make it as complete as possible. If you have information about specific call centers, please email what you know to reporter Zach Kyle at zkyle@idahostatesman.com. We're looking as many of the following facts as we can confirm: each call center's name, address, phone number, companies or other entities served by the center, whether calls are inbound or outbound (or both), and the number of employees. Don't worry if you don't have all of those facts — just give us what you can. Please provide your phone number, too, so we may call you if needed.

One factor that makes Idaho attractive to call-center operators is the state’s affordable workforce. Idaho’s median wage for customer-service representatives in 2012 was $25,550 a year, according to the Idaho Department of Labor.

But future industry growth faces two possible limiting factors: shortages of workers and a limited choice of buildings.

PLUG AND PLAY

Call centers today aren’t looking to invest millions of dollars in permanent homes, Lemas said. The industry changes too quickly. Companies come and go.

Instead, companies want to lease “plug-and-play” buildings, ones already equipped to handle hundreds of phone lines with big fiber-optic systems and banks of backup generators to keep the phones ringing through storms and other disruptions.

Those buildings are rare, especially for companies that need space for hundreds of workers, said Clark Krause, director of the Boise Valley Economic Partnership, which hosted a Maximus tour of the HP building.

“We’d always love to have more facilities to show,” Krause said. “But for larger companies, HP was one of the only buildings in the Valley that would suit their needs.”

Karen Warner, a Colliers International commercial real estate agent who brokered the Maximus-HP deal, said the Valley has several large, vacant office buildings, but nothing plug and play.

“As long as we have a shortage of space, it’s going to be challenging attracting more,” Warner said.

Al Marino, a partner at Thornton Oliver Keller Commercial Real Estate in Boise, said he is trying to lease a 22,000-square-foot-office space available that could be converted into a call center. But that’s a far cry from what the big operations are after.

“That building is between company requirements,” Marino said. “They either want something real small, in the 6,000-to-10,000-square-foot range, or something that’s 30,000-plus.”

An underserved demand often creates profitable opportunities for commercial developers to fill the gap by building on a speculation basis. However, building call centers on spec — meaning developers build first, then find a buyer or lessor later — is a poor fit for the call-center industry, said Ron Van Auker Sr., president of Van Auker Cos. in Meridian.

Van Auker owns and leases more than 2 million square feet of commercial property in the Treasure Valley, mostly warehouses. Warehouses fit a range of commercial businesses, while call centers are expensive and specific in their use, and they often move or close less than five years after opening, he said.

“If a developer didn’t have a tenant for it, building a call center would surprise the hell out of me,” he said.

What’s more, companies like Maximus that want to set up call centers are usually in a hurry. “By time they get here, they don’t want to wait for the building process,” Lemas said. “They’ll just move to the next city.”

The Valley still has a handful of large, vacant buildings that could be converted into call centers, including buildings in Nampa owned by Micron Technology Inc. and several vacant big-box stores.

MARKET SATURATION?

With 12,000 unemployed workers in Ada County and 20,000 in the Boise metro area, the Valley could supply workers for years of expansion in the call-center industry, Department of Labor spokesman Bob Fick said. The question is whether call-center jobs are desirable enough to attract thousands more employees willing to deal with customers who are sometimes angry and occasionally abusive. The turnover rate is higher than 70 percent each year at many call centers.

Idaho experienced a labor shortage in 2006 and 2007 for low-wage jobs.

“Whether that kind of situation will re-occur is anyone’s guess,” Fick said. “If it does, the response will be escalating benefits, including wages.”

Idaho’s median customer-service wage was second-lowest in the nation last year, behind only West Virginia at $23,420.

Zach Kyle: 377-6464 @IDS_zachkyle

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service