India's Call-Center Jobs Go Begging

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Sherwin Crasto / Reuters / Corbis

An Indian employee at a call center provides service support to international customers in the southern city of Bangalore.

Call centers are symbols of India's economic boom. With Anglicized names and feigned Western accents, Indians handle credit card problems and troubleshoot computers, collect debts and conduct customer satisfaction surveys. Over the past decade or so, relatively high salaries in the call center sector have attracted thousands of applicants across the country. But now the boom is going bust because India's college graduates and young job seekers just don't want to be bothered with the business anymore.

Young people say it is no longer worthwhile going through sleepless nights serving customers halfway around the world. They have better job opportunities in other fields. The work is tiring and stressful and offers few career advancement opportunities, says Dr. A. Sankara Reddy, head of Sri Venkateswara College in New Delhi. In response to students' complaints, Reddy said the college a few months ago banned call center recruiters from campus. At least a handful of other local colleges over the last few years have made the same decision.

The complaints come at a time when the Indian information technology sector, which includes companies that run call centers and do other outsourced work like medical transcription and claims processing, is facing a dearth of skilled labor. Many are opening back offices in other developing countries. India faces a potential shortage of 500,000 professional employees in the information technology sector by 2010, according to the National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM), a trade group.

Although the country produces hundreds of thousands of graduates each year, many lack the skills — in some cases, fluency in English — to be employed. The industry is also facing "intense competition" for workers from the retail and airline and hospitality sectors, where wages are now closer to what call centers pay, said Kiran Karnik, president of NASSCOM. As India expands its share of more sophisticated outsourcing like financial analysis and product research and development, Karnik said competition for choice employees is also growing. "As recently as four years back, the choice was pretty clear," Karnik said. "Either you got a high-paying, good job at a call center or no job at all. Today, not only are there other options, but they are pretty close to the call centers [in terms of salaries]."

That's a sentiment shared by many students at Sri Venkateswara College. On a recent Friday afternoon, a group of students chatted under the shade of a tree on the last day of classes before fall break Asked whether they would consider working at a call center, all eight said no, citing concerns about abusive customers and the long-term health effects of the jobs. "Earlier it was considered cool to work at a call center," said Nishant Thakur, 19, after the group had dispersed. "That died out quite quickly." Added Thakur's friend, Vishal Lathwal, 19, "If you work at a call center today people will think you don't have anything else to do or were a bad student."

In addition to having to work at night, call center workers must sometimes cope with abusive and racist remarks from overseas customers upset with jobs being shifted to India. 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." While the abuse was for an on-air program, Indian call center workers say they've encountered similar sentiments from real customers. Within six months to a year, their dreams of making "lots of money" and buying motorcycles and other consumer goods fade, says Vinod Shetty, a labor lawyer in Mumbai and advocate for call center operators. "The burnout is very high." The Indian government is concerned about stress-related conditions like high blood pressure at call centers and other outsourcing companies and is working on a health policy for the industry.

Still, industry experts say the jobs remain attractive for graduates of less prestigious schools that may not attract the job options of their elite peers. In an e-mail, Elango R, chief human resources officer for outsourcing firm MphasiS, which runs call centers, said the company has not had trouble recruiting workers and will hire 5,000 new graduates next year. Karnik said call center companies are experimenting with policies to reduce attrition. They are splitting the night shift between two workers and providing incentives like covering the cost of an MBA. But the lure of call centers may continue to diminish as India's economy grows and creates more opportunities for young college graduates. When the phone rings years from now, the call center may be in another country entirely.