Tulsa is home to 16,000 call center jobs, and that number keeps growing
Tulsa, OK — The former Eastland Mall is a hub of activity again. Once a retail outlet, the rebranded Eastgate Metroplex is home to a variety of businesses, including a growing trend in the Tulsa area.
The complex is headquarters for a handful of call centers, which employ about 2,000 people.
They are part of about two dozen call centers in the Tulsa area that employ some 16,000 people, according to data from the Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce and World reporting. In 2014, Site Selection Group, an economic development consultancy firm, ranked the city, at 3.4 percent, seventh among similar-sized cities for call-center workers as a percentage of the workforce.
An abundance of real estate, a ready labor supply and good communications infrastructure drew these companies to Tulsa. Those same attributes and Oklahomans’ strong work ethic will keep them here, said the managers of some local call centers and their landlords.
Old retail revamped
Alorica has invested heavily in Tulsa. The company employs 1,400 people and recently signed a lease extension at Eastgate, 14002 E. 21st St., said company officials.
Other call centers, such as TPV.Com, Coca-Cola and Enterprise Rent-A-Car, have turned Philcrest Properties president Rob Phillips’ risky purchase of the nearly abandoned Eastland Mall into a prudent investment.
According to figures Phillips provided the World, more than 2,000 people work at call centers in Eastgate.
He said the square footage of the old mall is more efficient than the center being housed on separate floors in a high-rise. Another vestigial attribute of the mall is a key factor too: parking for workers.
Alorica has been in Tulsa since it bought DecisionOne’s call center assets in 2005, but some of the newer centers include downtown’s BH Media Group, parent company of the Tulsa World, and the Verizon financial hub at Cherokee Industrial Park.
The Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oklahoma call center on Memorial Drive was once a Wal-Mart. The 600 parking spaces left over from those retail days accommodate about the same number of BCBS workers.
Postcards of the five markets handled at the Tulsa center are pinned to the cubicle wall above LaRhonda Goudeau’s desk. She’s worked at Blue Cross for four years and in the call center industry for 17. Above those postcards are copies of compliments from some of the thousands of calls she’s fielded over the years.
Goudeau is serene, as is her boss, Camela Williams, who worked in a similar role before she became a supervisor.
She said patience and a willingness to work with people are prerequisites for the job, and Blue Cross takes pains to screen out those who may not be able to handle the rigors of the job before hiring them.
Breaking up the routine
The U.S. economy has grown increasingly service-based. That’s created the need for customer service of all kinds, especially in call centers. Some companies keep their customer service operations in house. Others use third parties such as Alorica.
Whether in-house or outsourced, companies have a need for thousands of what some refer to as “cheeks in seats” to handle the sheer volume of calls.
With long hours spent sitting in front of a screen, the work can be monotonous. Some quit within the first few weeks or burn out after a while.
Luis Bustos and Kamilah Plummer both work at Third Party Verification at Eastgate. While they said they like their jobs, they also feel it can be repetitive.
“We do games here. We do contests,” Plummer said. “It just kind of breaks out of the norm of we’re just sitting in front of the computer and reading all day. We have fun here.”
Fun and things like hot dogs and snow cones are used as diversions for employees at Alorica. The call floor stretches on for what seems like acres of cubicles surrounded by walls of orange, green, Carolina blue and maize — colors approved for the national brands that Alorica handles calls for.
“When you’re on the phone all day or interacting through social media, it can be repetitive,” said Joe Dickerson, who oversees the call center. “So if you work in an environment where we can, honestly, shake things up, you can come in and enjoy your surroundings.”
It wasn’t always this way, Dickerson said of an industry that still sees a fair amount of turnover.
“When I started 30 years ago, people were kind of considered just a commodity, right,” he said. “Over the last 15 years, the industry has really come to understand that people are the backbone of the industry. You make sure you hire the right people. You invest heavily in the training. You invest heavily in the environment in which they work.”
Even with the changes, not everyone stays. Carlos Bermudes left Alorica after working there for a brief time. He said the work was “getting calls about the same things all the time,” and the environment wasn’t always stress free.
Turnover is expensive
One way to combat turnover is to pay higher wages. Workers at Blue Cross can start at about $12 an hour, based on education, experience and skills. Some make as much as $16 an hour.
Most of the call center workers in Tulsa earn about $12 hour, according to the Tulsa Metro Chamber. Chamber economist Bob Ball said it’s not a high wage compared to other industries, but it’s higher than in some other cities, he said.
One reason for the higher wages is the competition for workers. In 2014, call center workers made up about 3.4 percent of Tulsa’s workforce, according Site Selection Group.
Call centers like to stay in that “sweet spot” of around 3 percent, said Brett Bayduss of Site Selection Group. After that, he said, the competition for workers gets fierce and employers see job-hopping.
Ball said the relatively higher wages for call center workers in Tulsa is probably due to the number of jobs. The low cost of doing business, he said, allows for relatively higher wages without hurting profitability.
Call center directors who spoke with the World praised the area’s work ethic as a part of the reason for the concentration of jobs. Ball said there’s merit to that.
“It’s a very conservative part of the country,” Ball said. “People want to give an honest day’s work for a wage. Maybe that sounds corny, but that certainly plays into it.”
A call center employee at Dish Network in south Tulsa, Sam Brannaman, gave his perspective on the jobs available in a certain part of the labor force: “You’re blue-collar or a call center worker. There’s no in-between.”