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Business

German Call Centers Flourishing

Germans who hang up the phone cursing as some telemarketer interrupts dinner beware -- the call center market is expanding and will continue to do so, experts say.

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More than three-quarters of call center employees are women

While call center operators in the developing world adopt British and American accents to fool western callers about their true location, Germans have fewer problems reaching a compatriot when they call the service number printed on nearly every product's packaging.

German call centers are booming.

Over the past two and half years 35,000 jobs were created in call centers. A total of 330,000 people work in Germany's 2,800 call centers, according to the Call Center Forum Deutschland.

"The increasing importance of the German service industry as well as increasing service expectations are reasons for the growth," said Harald Weisbrod, the forum's vice president, who also said he anticipated the creation of another 80,000 jobs in the next five years.

Symbolfoto Telefonüberwachung

Experts anticipate further call center growth

The people filling those positions -- mainly Germans since finding people with the necessary language skills outside the country is difficult -- won't have it easy, according to Silvia Horsch of Berlin. She worked part-time in a call center for three and half years, and said she couldn't imagine making it a full-time job.

'Phone is always ringing'

"The phone is always ringing and it takes a lot of concentration to work the computer system and reply to all the callers needs quickly," Horsch, 30, said. "Four or five hours are okay, but longer than that is hard to take."

The services trade union Verdi said there are "some proper call center businesses, but also a number working in a gray zone" when it comes to taking care of their employees, according to Verdi spokesman Andreas Splanemann.

The union would like to see call center agents, as the employees are referred to, offered an industry-wide standard contract and councils established to represent workers' interests.

While Patrick Tapp, vice-president of the German Direct Marketing Association, agreed there are some "black sheep" whose practices tarnish the industry's image, he emphasized job seekers with good communication skills can find a job in a reputable call center.

Fighting negative image

Call Center

Call center agents are becoming responsible for more than answering phones

Making sure call centers provide training for new employees, opportunities for advancement and flexible hours are ways many companies choose to fight the negative image often associated with work in a call center, Tapp said.

It's in a call center's interest to provide an amiable working atmosphere since new employees are constantly needed as the list of jobs they do grows longer.

Call centers are becoming responsible for e-mail and written contact with customers since they already have the business information customers are asking about and are expanding to fulfill the tasks, Tapp added.

Expansion especially marked in the East

Eastern and northern Germany are especially attractive to call center operators because they can find people there to employ. Local governments are also often willing to give the operators financial breaks for creating jobs and cutting away some of the red tape involved in starting and moving a company.

"The call center branch is the fastest growing business sector in Mecklenburg-Western Pommerania," the state's Economics Minister Otto Ebnet said at a call center trade fair in November. "In the last 12 months alone, about 1,000 new employees have been hired in service centers."

Arbeitslose auf Jobsuche

Call center job ads appear often in eastern Germany's newspapers

As one of Germany's weakest economic regions with an unemployment rate of over 18 percent, Ebnet has reason to be pleased that the number of call centers in his state has risen from about 11 employing 1,500 people to 70 employing some 7,900.

According to Call Center Forum statistics, 77 percent of call center employees are female and 52 percent of the agents man the phones full-time and earn an average annual salary of 28,000 euros ($33,030).

Employees stay until they find something else

Finding people qualified to fill the positions is currently "difficult to very difficult," according to Weisbrod. An official "Dialog Marketing Salesperson" training program will be introduced in August 2006 to contribute to a larger pool of competent job seekers.

But Verdi debates whether people really want the positions or don a call center headset because there aren't any other jobs available. He pointed out that worker retention rates are lower than in other industries.

It's a phenomenon Horsch experienced first-hand answering calls for a mobile phone service provider she would not name.

"I worked in a call center for three and half years, and when I left, no one who started at the call center before me was still there," she said, adding that she worked on a floor with about 50 other call center agents. "People worked in the call center until they found something else and then left."

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