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Can training halt call-centre exodus?

As cheap labour in the Far East is tempts firms to relocate a Welsh call centre invests in the skills of homegrown talent. Ross Davies reports

FE training that allows employees to learn new skills in normal working hours is cutting staff turnover and improving performance, claims a Cardiff call centre.

Employees at the Cardiff call (or "contact") centre of Atlantic Electric and Gas can study for national vocational qualification level 2 under a programme funded by Education and Learning Wales (ELWa).

Subjects taught include information technology and teleworking as well as call handling. In the two years that the programme has been running nearly half of the Atlantic call centre employees have trained and 20 have qualified.

Employees can take in-house courses in information technology and teleworkingcustomer service on days when the phones are less busy than usual. Atlantic uses two training providers, SCT of Treforest and Route One of Cardiff.

Atlantic said that staff turnover was at an "all-time low" in the company's three years in Cardiff. Recruitment, training and facilities manager Jo Horrigan said: "These courses are a wonderful incentive for people who otherwise might think of changing jobs. When people develop their skills in-house they identify what they do well, which in turn encourages them to perform even better."

Developing staff skills is essential to expansion, Jo Horrigan added: "We find that employees who take the courses are far more confident in their abilities and deal with customers more effectively."

Kathryn Cosh, 20, is one Atlantic employee who has completed an NVQ level 2 (GCSE equivalent) in IT communication. Miss Cosh, of Rhymney in Cardiff, left school two years ago with 11 GCSEs and 2 A-levels.

"I hope to work my way up through the company, and the new skills I'm learning certainly help me in that," Miss Cosh said Alan Woods, head of learning provision for ELWa South-East Wales said:

"We're developing more workplace training programmes to help employees achieve their maximum potential."

Atlantic won an award at this year's Welsh Call Centre Awards for rethinking recruitment. The company has reorganised training for recruits and has a daily newsletter to communicate important developments and attempts to foster a sense of belonging.

Sandra Busby, director of the Call Centre Initiative, an industry body which promotes training, praised the company's trailblazing training and added: "I hope the company's example will be the catalyst for industry best practice and the professional recognition that contact centre workers merit."

Call centres employ about 24,000 people in Wales, and are said to generate over pound;400 million for the Welsh economy.

Ireen Lock, chairman of the Call Centre Employers' Forum, says members are trying to keep staff motivated, increase job satisfaction and improve training and customer services.

"In Wales we continue to resist the impact of contact centres 'outsourcing'

operations overseas, not least because of the high calibre of staff we have here." Welsh call centres lead the UK in retaining staff, rates of pay and prospects, according to an Incomes Data Services review. About 400,000 people work in UK call centres, but, according to management consultant Accenture, 65,000 jobs may be going to India.

In September, Lloyds TSB announced plans to shift 1,500 jobs from the UK to India by the end of this year, followed by an announcement that its Newcastle contact centre would be closing by the end of 2004, with the loss of 960 jobs. The jobs will go to Hyderabad and Bangalore where pay rates are one sixth of UK salaries.

Other employers exporting jobs include National Rail and BT Directory Enquiries. HSBC says it plans to move 4,000 jobs to the Far East over three years. About 80,000 UK employees, or one in five of the UK call centre total, work in or for government agencies.

About 60 per cent of the public are willing to seek advice and services by phone, compared with 40 per cent happy to use the Internet, according to a National Audit Office study in 2002.

NAO investigated call centre costs and services for government agencies such as the UK Passport Agency, the Driving Standards Agency, the Department of Work amp; Pensions and the Environment Agency.

While people were "mostly satisfied" with services, government call centres were badly advertised and few had any idea how much money they cost the taxpayer, said Sir John Bourn, head of the FAO.

About a third of call centres' calls cost the taxpayer less than pound;1 per call minute, but NAO found that Equality Direct cost pound;27 per minute. Few government helplines were advertised in phone books, the first place people could be expected to look.

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