BANGOR, Maine — With call centers in Maine opening, closing and changing hands at a rapid clip, there may be a perception that it is a volatile industry.
However, data from state and national sources show just the opposite: that the number of jobs in the call center industry has held steady in Maine for at least a decade and is on a long-term upswing nationally that survived even the devastating recession that hit the United States in the fall of 2008.
“As fast as one closes, another one will open,” said Paul Stockford, research director for the National Association of Call Centers. “There were some lessons learned during the recession we had in 2002. There were a lot of layoffs and people in the industry without jobs and businesses as a whole suffered as a result. If you cut out your customer service function, you’re really cutting your own throat. It’s much easier to keep a customer than it is to go out and get a new one.”
Stockford said his latest research indicates that there are some 66,000 call centers in the U.S. that employ more than 3.5 million people. The first call center in the country dates to the 1970s, when a Chicago company started putting customer calls in a queue for the first available agents.
In Maine, Bank of America became the latest company to bring bad news to the state’s call center industry when it announced this week it will close its Orono facility in October, which will affect about 200 jobs. In past years, companies including MBNA, Global Contact Services of Pittsfield, Envisionet of Brunswick and ListenUp Contact Solutions in Westbrook have done the same. Despite those changes, the number of call center employees in Maine has remained more or less steady for at least a decade, according to Department of Labor spokesman Adam Fisher.
“While there has been some turnover, Maine has been pretty successful in retaining jobs in this sector,” said Fisher. “The work force here is the magnet that attracts jobs. It’s the glue that holds businesses in a particular region.”
Fisher said it is not possible to say exactly how many call or contact center jobs there are in Maine because they cross numerous industry sectors — the Department of Labor, for example, has its own call center but those jobs are classified under “government” for data-collecting purposes — but said the numbers have been holding steady. Data provided by Fisher show that since 2002 there have been swings up and down, peaking at more than 9,300 jobs in 2009, but that overall the number of call center jobs has remained at more than 8,100 jobs for the past decade.
“There’s turnover,” said Fisher. “The names of the companies may be changing but there are centers that are coming in to replace the ones that left.”
Those companies have included Bank of America, which took over many of the former MBNA operations, and Argo Marketing, which recently took over a call center in Pittsfield. Companies new to Maine also have entered the fray, such as cellphone company T-Mobile and Carbonite Inc., which provides data security for computer users.
Carbonite, which opened a customer support center in Lewiston last summer, now employs about 150 people there. Erin Delaney, a spokeswoman for the Boston-based company, said there were several reasons why Carbonite chose Maine after years of outsourcing its call centers to other countries.
“It quickly became clear to us that Maine is the perfect place to find the talent we need to offer customer service excellence and our Lewiston location was the right fit for us after a lot of research and consideration,” said Delaney in written responses to questions from the Bangor Daily News. “Maine also has a history cultivating strong call centers across a range of industries. We were able to leverage this talent as we built out our own team.”
Another giant in Maine’s call center industry is retailer L.L. Bean, which has about 2,000 employees spread across three call centers in Portland, Lewiston and Bangor. Company spokeswoman Carolyn Beem said the centers are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, just like the flagship store in Freeport. She said the decision to locate call centers within the state stemmed from the company’s commitment to Maine.
“When we were looking at setting up our customer service centers, we only looked at Maine,” she said. “We’re committed to the Maine work force.”
Beem said the company’s recognition of the value of customer service dates to the first 100 pairs of Bean Boots it ever sold a century ago — 90 pairs of which had to be replaced because of defects.
“As the way the customers communicate with us changed from mail and phone, then phone and Internet, and now mostly Internet, there has always been a specific function [in Bean’s customer service department] that is a priority for our company.”
Stockford said there is evidence that there are significant changes on the horizon for the industry, most of which are driven by social media websites and increasing use of technology such as email and electronic chatting.
“It’s still too early to tell what will happen,” he said. “Right now there’s a lot of excitement, trepidation and no clear answers.”
Stockford said the concentration of call centers in Maine is probably due to factors that play out across the industry: the state’s relatively low cost of living, high quality of life and abundance of people looking for jobs.
Fisher said the call center industry in Maine is important to the state’s economy, representing about 1.5 percent of the total work force.
“We’re running about 9,000 jobs in this sector,” he said. “That’s significant. It puts food on the table for a lot of Maine families.”