Call Center Boom Adds to Language Needs

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GLASGOW, UK - Scotland's explosive growth as a call center Mecca has brought a host of problems with it, most notably a shortage of qualified agents able to speak several languages or native speakers.


But many multinationals who recently have opened pan-European call centers here, including several US e-commerce firms, have found the problem manageable, especially since the government offers help in locating and staffing call centers.


Locate in Scotland (LIS), a government-backed enterprise that attracts foreign investment, helps call center operators recruit multilingual staffs and even provides some ready-to-occupy facilities.


"On a typical call center project, we would provide a support package, which might involve some capital grants, some training support, and help in finding and operating a properly equipped facility," said LIS' Andy McDonald.


Absolute Quality, a Maryland-based company that provides outside customer care for electronic games and e-commerce companies, got LIS help in setting up in Glasgow last summer from where they now service much of western Europe with 47 agents who speak 10 languages.


Absolute Quality president Stephen Muirhead said he had considered locating in Belgium or Holland before choosing Scotland. "I lived in Belgium for 10 years, and my assumption was that Belgium would be the place," Muirhead said.


"But when you looked at the wage rates, the costs of infrastructure, the level of unionization - Scotland was dramatically more attractive." Muirhead said he found agents who spoke all 10 languages without having to recruit outside Scotland.


Jocelyn Talbot, senior VP of telesales at Monster.com, the Maynard, MA, employment Web site, had a similar story. She set three site selection criteria for the firm's first overseas call center: availability of multi-lingual agents, good quality of life and favorable cost structure. "We chose Glasgow because it filled all those requirements."


The center opened a month ago and employs 50 agents who speak five languages between them. All of them were found in the Glasgow area. The facility services the UK, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, and expects to add Germany this month.


Some say the competition for skilled multilingual labor is getting more intense, however.


"The center may have to search outside the UK for some of its employees, which means relocation costs," said Anke Jardine of European Resources, an Edinburgh call center consulting and training firm.


Spanish, French, Italian, German and Flemish are the easiest languages to find in Scotland, while Dutch and the Scandinavian languages are the most difficult. On the plus side, turnover and labor costs are lower than elsewhere in Europe.


Salaries, Muirhead said, were comparable to what he paid in the US but added that he gets more technically skilled and better educated agents for his money. Staffing, he conceded, was made easier by attracting some pre-trained multilingual staff from IBM.


IBM has been a star player in Scotland where it operates a complex of three pan-European call centers in Greenock, 15 miles outside Glasgow.


The company employs 1,500 at its three call centers which can handle 20 languages. About half its workforce is from the UK, the rest from other European countries.

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