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College promotes the softer side of call centres

EIGHTEEN months ago it was a muddy field. Now it's home to Swansea College's call centre and computer technology training facility, Cygnus Online - a beacon of new enterprise.

And where once it sat in splendid isolation - the project was a calculated gamble says principal Keith Elliott - Cygnus Online has since been joined on the Swansea Vale enterprise park by major call centres run by technology giant NTL and the DVLA, the vehicle licence agency.

With industry standard equipment, Cygnus Online offers anything from basic keyboard and call centre training to advanced skills needed for computer network maintenance using a programme developed by CISCO in the United States.

Part-funded by European and Welsh Development Agency (WDA) money, Mr Elliott says the training centre was crucial in attracting NTL to Swansea, whose call centre nearby employs 1,200.

The college is anxious to banish to history the image of the call centre sweatshop. Cygnus Online is a comfortable working environment offering anything from on-site training to video conferencing to a pre-employment course directed at, among others, single mothers and people from ethnic minorities. Completion of this guarantees an interview with NTL.

Trainees visit call centres to see for themselves what life is like; and role play includes dealing with angry customers. "When we give them a presentation, we give them a realistic understanding of what it's all about. They need to know what their limitations are," said Sharon Lewis, who supervises the training and, like all the staff, has worked in the industry.

Keith Elliott is pushing for his college to get ahead of the game in providing Swansea with a well-equipped workforce. "We have been doing a research project along with the WDA into predicting skills requirements for the future," he said. He also wants to ensure that Cygnus Online is not perceived within the college as some remote offshoot.

"We are trying to encourage some of the skills on offer here into the mainstream curriculum - skills that everyone will need," he said. "We want to integrate centres of excellence with areas of the formal curriculum. This site has a strategic function in how the college can develop."

Almost 5,000 are now employed in Swansea call centres. The city is keen to put behind it the saga of First Line, a firm selling mobile phones which became notorious as one of the worst employers in the field.

Donald MacDonald, telecoms recruitment manager for the CWU, has vivid memories of his visit there. "There was a room with a ceiling about nine feet high and 200 people sitting in straight lines," he said.

"It was incredibly hot and people had just a few inches of personl space. They took on kids who had never had a job and were on their uppers. Then one Friday last summer, they didn't get paid. They stormed out and began stoning the windows. The police were called - they thought they were going to smash the place up."

It's a memory the industry prefers not to dwell on. The WDA has striven to attract call centres to areas of traditionally high unemployment - there are almost 80 in the Principality, employing around 20,000 people. David Blott, a WDA business support manager, says that Cygnus Online is "the icing on the cake" in helping attract inward investment.

Meanwhile, the demise of First Line - "the one bad apple" - had some positive effects. "After they went out of business, and with call centres having a terrible image, I felt something ought to be done, so I got employers together to form the West Wales Association of Communication Centres," said Mr Blott.

The association's membership of 25 ranges from giants such as NTL employing 1,400, to small operations with 20 or so workers. "It is about sharing best practice and setting standards," said Alison Kissick of HSBC bank, one of the Swansea employers to have recruited from the college.

CWU figures show that average call-centre rates of pay in Wales, at around pound;11,000, are the lowest in the UK, compared with pound;14,000 in south-west England, the highest outside London. Nationally, new recruits as customer service advisors might expect to earn from pound;6,500, depending on where they are and for whom they work. Experienced hands at the top of a typical six-grade scale may, in the right place, earn more than pound;25,000.

There is big money available for the few: a call-centre manger at Axcion was reported to earn pound;67,000, while a technical admin support specialist working for Granada Home was earning pound;40,000. Average salaries tend to be lower in retail (around pound;11,000) and higher in the public and voluntary sector (around pound;14,200). Absenteeism through sickness among call-centre staff is higher - 5.3 per cent compared with 3.7 per cent across all industries.

Wales has taken a lead in developing a recognised qualification for call-centre workers. A group of colleges including Swansea helped persuade the National Training Organisation to endorse an NVQ level 1 certificate in basic call-centre competencies. The old NVQ was considered too irrelevant and laborious for businesses.

The Wales model, which has also defined a new list of core skills covering NVQ levels 1, 2, 3 and 4, is now being extended across the UK. "I believe these new qualifications will become the model for the rest of Europe," said Sandra Busby, spokeswoman for the Cardiff and Newport Call Centre Initiative.

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