Business and Economy Featured

Congeniality for Which TN is Famous Could Attract Jobs

One of Tennessee’s most valuable assets — its friendliness — could play a role in a solution to one of the state’s most perplexing problems, which is how to create jobs in rural areas.

And it could involve providers of what is widely regarded as one of the most unfriendly customer service experiences — call centers.

State economic development officials are looking at a pilot project that would tap into one of the prime examples of jobs the United States has been losing to other countries like India.

The idea is that rural areas are extremely hard to sell to prospective businesses in the traditional site selection process. But with technology making the strides it has in recent years, and with aspects of the foreign workforce working against other countries, Tennessee officials see a chance to go after one of the most contemporary of job markets, which is having trained workers help people handle issues by phone.

Like any new business, there are infrastructure needs to consider. However, in this case, the infrastructure would not be the classic road or bridge or railway spur, state authorities say. It would be broadband Internet access.

Commissioner Bill Hagerty of the Department of Economic and Community Development informed a conference on business development in Nashville last week of plans to look closely at call centers as potential job generators.

“We’re bringing 21st-century jobs into areas that otherwise would be very hard to reach,” Hagerty said. “The pitch we make to employers is that the jobs we’re talking about, with the weak dollar and lower wages that prevail in rural areas, are very competitive with India or Manila or some of the other places they’ve been offshoring.”

Hagerty said the turnover rate for such jobs in foreign countries is high.

“These people just jump from one place to another over there,” Hagerty said. “I think employers are beginning to realize we can be competitive here in the United States. So our hope is to get ahead of that curve.”

State economic development officials have met with several large businesses, which Hagerty called “outsource providers,” about putting their operations in Tennessee.

“Our hope is we can set up a new program, properly incentivize that, and begin to put these new types of jobs into more rural areas,” Hagerty said.

Hagerty did not talk about specific pay ranges in the call center initiative, so that would presumably be a key factor in both attracting businesses to the state and workers to the jobs. But he characterized the potential for call centers as one possible answer to the extremely difficult task of employing people in rural areas.

“The first thing that comes up to us is how we get a workforce ready, trained and appropriate to that task, and to see what kind of mistakes we might want to avoid,” Hagerty said. “Our hope is we can see new opportunities evolve.”

Amid all the discussion of Tennessee’s attributes cited by government officials, the friendly nature of Tennesseans increasingly comes up in discussions of the assets of the workforce. Friendliness and a good work ethic frequently are cited in business roundtable discussions as strengths, while politicians more often list items like having no income tax or the fact Tennessee is a right-to-work state.

The good nature of the state’s workers is an intangible asset and difficult to quantify. But Hagerty got some unexpected support at the conference from Lillian Hartgrove, vice president of economic development for the Cookeville-Putnam County Chamber of Commerce.

Hartgrove described her previous experience with a call center in Cookeville for Suntrust Bank. She said the Cookeville call center, which opened several years ago, also included hiring some employees to work from home.

“It’s been very successful,” she said. “We had call centers in Miami, Atlanta, Orlando and Richmond. And Cookeville became our state-of-the-art call center.

“What we found in Tennessee is something we take for granted. We do have a great workforce that has excellent customer service skills. We hear that all the time. We have the friendliest people just about in the United States.”

Hartgrove had her own measure of proof about that reputation.

“When I was living in Miami, we would call customers in Tennessee, and customers in Tennessee were the nicest. We had people in Miami who wanted to call people in Tennessee. They didn’t want to talk to people in Florida or other parts of the country,” she said.

“So we have to capitalize on our southern charm. The thing we bring to the table with our workforce is centered around customer service skills.”

Hartgrove said typically there would be six weeks of classroom training, then a two-week period of putting the worker with a representative for support, then help-desk support after that. She said before staff would deploy workers at home, they would make sure their skill set was solid and that the home would be conducive to the work, with no children in the background crying, for example. It would involve a home inspection, she said.

After that, the nature of the work would depend on the call center, the company behind it and how complex the work is, Hartgrove said.

Hagerty said the state has already begun a partnership with a BlueCross BlueShield representative on the program.

“Our thought process would probably have both satellite call centers and work-at-home models,” Hagerty said. “We’ll depend on the workforce available and the specific client population available, too, but the governor and I have called on several large host organizations who said they would be willing to help us.

“I think if we put the right formula together, we’ve got a shot at making something really meaningful happen here.”

Hagerty heard other comments at the conference about the importance of broadband Internet access to rural communities and how it would become even more of a factor when work is extended to a work-at-home basis.

A conference participant also pointed out that similar challenges can apply in urban areas where unemployment is a difficult issue. Hagerty noted it would be easier to deal with broadband issues in an urban area.