Fillip for call centre training

Andrew Mourant

The nightmare may be exaggerated but the prospect of India gobbling up thousands of call centre jobs still haunts the British industry.

Yet there is much more to it than hustling nuisances ringing out of the blue - often fobbed off because, as they say in the trade, there's no "emotional connection".

At the other end of the spectrum, customer service can be complex territory that does not transfer easily to the third world. UK companies are coming to realise that cheap may not be the best option.

But finding and retaining capable people to handle the trickier stuff can be difficult. That applies to bosses and support staff as well as operatives at the sharp end.

This matters greatly in north-east England where around 44,000 are employed by the call centre industry. City of Sunderland College has responded by becoming the UK's first Centre of Vocational Excellence (CoVE) for call centre training provision. Its application for pound;500,000 from the Learning and Skills Council was approved in January and the CoVE launched in July.

Sunderland set up its facility at Doxford business park in 1999. In five years, it has taught more than 10,000 students call-handling, supervisory and management skills. The college's bid for CoVE status was also backed by the regional development agency, One NorthEast, E-Skills UK, the sector skills council for IT, and local call centres.

Initially the focus will be increasing the skills of people in customer-facing roles. The centre aims to support employers by delivering targeted level 3 training (A-level equivalent) to potential team leaders and managers. The curriculum will then evolve in line with employer requirements. LSC money has been spent on new computer and phone systems.

Video-conferencing and boardroom facilities have also been developed - Sunderland aims to be a state-of-the-art call centre replica. Louise Doyle, CoVE manager, who spent 12 years in senior posts with British Airways and Orange's contact centre operations, said: "We aim to gain credibility and overcome industry scepticism about the ability of outside bodies to deliver measurable results when training their employees."

"I want to promote the industry as a credible career option. At the moment it isn't a particularly well-qualified industry. It is, however, a glossy one - call centres look good and feel good. They invest a lot of money in making people want to work in them.

"But it isn't always easy for employers to match their vision for skills development with the internal resources they have. If we can bridge the gap, then we've achieved our goal. We need to convince employers that an FE establishment can and will act on their wishes."

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Andrew Mourant

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