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Segue Finds Skilled Labor Pool, Low Expenses in Northern Ireland

After a study of potential U.S. locations for its next technical support call center uncovered prohibitively high labor and land costs, Segue Software found an affordable and qualified labor pool in Northern Ireland.

Approximately 13 percent of the Boston-based e-business management software company’s customers are European and the company foresees continued expansion in Europe. However, though Northern Ireland’s Industrial Development Bureau positions itself as a great location for call centers that serve as gateways to the European market, Segue officials are quick to point out that is not how the center is intended.

“The center will handle calls from everywhere. It is not meant to focus on Europe,” said Tony Kolish, senior vice president of Segue’s services group. “All calls will go into one seamless queue and will be answered by whoever is free, regardless of where the call originates. People will not know what center they are calling – except for the accents.”

The cost of space and utilities was about half what Segue would be able to find in the United States, but the factor that weighed perhaps most heavily in the company’s decision was the cost of maintaining a qualified labor force.

“Here, people with technical skills want to be software engineers because that is where there is a possibility of advancement in the American system,” said Kolish. “There, that is seen as a dead-end job. People don’t want to work in a box all day on one little piece of something without ever getting to see the big picture. There, the way to advance your career is through some form of working with the customer, like customer service or marketing. We were able to hire the type of people we would never be able to get over here for a lot, lot, lot, lot less.”

Average annual turnover for call centers jobs in Northern Ireland is seven percent, and sometimes lower for inbound operations, said Neil Robinson, international investment manager for the Industrial Development Bureau for Northern Ireland. The relatively high unemployment and small number of call centers in the country contribute to the desirability of the positions.

“The jobs are highly valued. We still have a high level of unemployment in Northern Ireland and we have a young, fast-growing population,” said Robinson. “American companies have long been employers here and they are good employers so we are used to American companies recruiting workers here and we welcome them. We also have a low level of call center employment so we are well short of the saturation level that you find in some other countries.”

Currently 20 percent of the manufacturing work force in Northern Ireland is employed by American and Canadian companies, Robinson said.

Segue required a workforce that was familiar with structured programming language skills, such as C or C++ at a minimum, because the support line will answer calls about how to debug the software. Specialization in the Java language, Action X browser technology and database technology is a plus.

Those skills were found among graduates of Queens University of Belfast. The inter-related nature of Northern Ireland’s academic, governmental, and business community helped sway the company toward the location.

“To find the site, we talked to business leaders and government officials, and when we mentioned the need for people with computer skills, we were taken right over to the computer department at Queens University to review the curriculum,” Kolish said.

The Industrial Development Bureau offers to manage the administrative and legal work surrounding hiring and recruitment.

“What we do is talk to a client about the jobs they want to hire for, then we create an advertisement approved by them. The IDB then places the ad, screens applicants and sets up interviews,” said Robinson. “The company conducts the actual interviews, but everything from the premises for holding the interviews to the administrative paperwork is handled here by us.”

Segue has hired an initial staff of nine for its call center in Northern Ireland with plans to add 10 people in the second quarter, five in the third, and after that 15 a year indefinitely. The first nine are currently in Boston being trained, and will begin taking calls later this month or early in April.

The company will use space in Northern Ireland’s Springvale facility, but that is temporary as the company expects to outgrow that location. The country has good telecommunications systems and its call centers are outfitted to the client’s specifications with state of the art technology.

Segue, whose other call center is at its corporate headquarters, studied Germany and Austria in addition to U.S. markets before settling on the Northern Ireland location.

Calls to the company’s support line generally come from the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries.

The company initially had concerns about the history of violence in Northern Ireland, but felt comfortable with the environment after visiting the country on a due diligence trip. n

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