South Wales is rapidly becoming the call centre capital of the UK. Martin Whittaker reports on a training course that supplies the skills.
Its valley communities were built on iron, coal and steel. Today, there's a new booming industry in South Wales -telephone calls.
Call centres are springing up throughout the region, handling enquiries from a range of sectors, from telephone banking to customers querying their gas bills.
In response, Coleg Glan Hafren (Cardiff Tertiary College) has teamed up with industry to launch a pioneering call centre training course.
The college has become the first in the UK to set up its own pound;250,000 call centre at its city centre campus, giving trainees a full simulation of what they can expect when they start work.
The first pilot course has completed its run, and the second wave of students has just started. In September, the college begins evening classes, and there are plans to franchise the course out to other colleges.
The centre will also operate commercially, handling calls both for the college and outside businesses.
Since setting up the initiative, the phone of Coleg Glan Hafren assistant principal Alan Marrin has been running red hot with enquiries from industry. "We're going to need a call centre just to deal with the calls we get about the call centre," he quipped.
A year ago, he saw call centres springing up around Cardiff and Newport and realised there was a role for the college.
"If you're stuck in Brighton and you want to know the next train to Dorking, the chances are you'll have your call put through to Cardiff," he said.
"Whether it's telephone banking, insurance companies, public utilities, people are tending to do business over the phone now.
"We realised these call centres provided massive employment. It was 400-500 jobs at a time and it became clear that the local labour market was going to overheat because of this. We didn't have people with the skills."
He approached industry to get backing for a practical course. The initiative, called PACT - Partners in Call Centre Training - was formed with locally based companies Hyder PLC, Mitel Telecom and NTL Telecommunications, and the local authority-backed Cardiff and Newport Call Centre Initiative.
The free five-week course consists of 80 hours' tuition. Skills learnt include telephone conversation, how to deal with customers and using computer databases. Those completing it are awardeda certificate in introductory call centre skills.
"It's the only course in thecollege where we can put in a guarantee of a job at the end," Mr Marrin said. "I know it's high pressure, but earning pound;6.64 an hour in a plush environment is much nicer than pound;3 an hour in a pub or stacking supermarket shelves."
One of 16 trainees to complete the pilot course is Peter Cahill, aged 38, from Cardiff. He was out of work with a spine injury and was looking for a change of career.
Now he works answering telephone enquiries with Hyder PLC, the parent company of Welsh Water. "Obviously the job is slightly different from the course," he said. "You're working under a different set of pressures here. But the course prepares you for it - you get a good insight into the industry."
Britain has the highest number of call centres in Europe, with nearly three times as many as France, its nearest rival. One study estimated an increase of up to 49,000 jobs in this sector nationally in the three years up to 1999.
Areas most likely to benefit are Wales, Scotland, West Yorkshire and the North-east. Apart from having competitive labour costs and other factors in their favour, research suggests customers like a good friendly Welsh or Geordie accent.
Call centres are popular with graduates, and many companies are looking for part-time women returners - some even provide cr ches.
But the sector has also had some bad publicity, with accusations that it operates white-collar sweatshops. Some call centre companies have had a staff turnover rate as high as 80 per cent a year.
The industry is in a state of flux, and training has so far been piecemeal and unco-ordinated, said Liz Latham of the Cardiff and Newport Call Centre Initiative.
Coleg Glan Hafren and its partners in PACT are now aiming to set up another training call centre at a college in Newport, and Liz Latham believed there is a big role for FE colleges, which have been slow to catch on.
"We already have some private funding available to us for the Newport call centre, so we can again make it a state-of-the-art training facility."
"As we go on running more courses we would like to develop our own NVQ training," she said. We want quality, we want standards and we want to be able to provide education and training,"she said.
"We want to allow somebody who comes into the call centre as a woman returner the prospect of a career path. It's not a sweatshop - it's a recognised career."