College students find work in call centers

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“I need money for school expenses. Good thing there are call centers,” said Maria Christina Bactol, 22, an industrial engineering student from the University of the Philippines Diliman.

Bactol lost her allowance from the Department of Science and Technology after she fared poorly in one of her subjects. Now, she works for a big call center firm on Ayala Avenue in Makati City.

Attracted by the relatively high pay, she is part of a growing number of students working at call centers.  A number them have opted to quit school because they can not cope with the demands of academics and work.

Proclaimed as the “sunshine industry,” call centers are part of the booming business process outsourcing (BPO) industry.   Outsourcing has become popular among foreign companies because it helps them lower operating costs and give them access to a large labor pool and talent.

High turnover

But many call center agents do not keep their jobs for long. The turnover rate is between 60 and 80 percent—the highest in the world, said the Contact Center Association of the Philippines (CCAP), an organization of call center businesses in the country.

CCAP said the high turnover rate was due primarily to health concerns over the work.  Most call center agents stay up all night to get calls from people in the United States. A full-time agent stays for an average of 22 months, while a part-time agent stays for just 10 months.

Still going strong

CCAP executive director Jojo Uligan said the BPO industry in the Philippines “is still going strong compared with those in other countries and in spite of what is happening in the global economy.”

A large number of people still want to join the industry, especially young professionals, fresh graduates and even those still in college, he said.

Call centers are typically lenient in accepting agents. Unlike other companies which require degree holders, call centers accept those who are still in college, dropouts or even high school graduates.

Call centers don’t require much education other than excellent reading and speaking, people and computer skills, said Uligan.

Though the requirements are relatively easy to comply with, only certain types of people can qualify for the job. “This job is not for everyone,” Uligan said.

The job requires a lot of skills and training because over-the-phone work is very challenging, he said.

Although there are no available data on how many college students work in call centers, some studies have shed light on the matter.

Motivations, coping

A thesis by UP Diliman students Karen Lorenzana and Karl Molina, titled “Motivations, challenges and coping strategies of UP students as call center agents,” dealt with UP students working as call center agents and how they cope.

Lorenzana said a lot of students from other schools were also working in call centers. “They come from all schools in Metro Manila: Miriam, UST, PNU, FEU—the whole lot.”

Call center work, according to the Lorenzana and Molina study, is the best option for college students because of the following:

A relatively high salary which enables them to contribute for their families’ financial needs;

A job relatively easy to learn and adapt to; and

Training and experience.

With her work, Bactol was not only able to pay for her schooling but also send money to her mother, a breast-cancer survivor who helps in a sister’s military supplies business in Leyte.

“My mom cannot have a regular job because she is physically unhealthy,” she said.

More than P11,000

For Jamaicah Joaquin, a former tourism major who had worked part-time for 10 months while in college at a company in Quezon City, the best thing about the job is the pay.

“Part-time agents are paid slightly higher—more than P11,000 per month—than the eight-to-nine-hour regular, entry-level jobs like service crew member, sales agents and clerks,”  Joaquin said.

From a middle-class family with parents, eldest brother and elder sister all working, Joaquin wanted to be self-sufficient so she applied as an agent.

Salaries in call centers ranged from P12,000 to P25,000  a month in 2011, according to the Department of Labor and Employment .

A study by Maureen David, titled “Perceived effects of student employment on the academic performance of selected UP Diliman students,” noted that a handful of college students work to be financially independent.

Guen Gemoto, 22, a geography student from UP Diliman, became a call center agent because she wanted to be “productive” and be financially on her own.

She started working in 2007 when she was still a freshman computer science student.

Because she is the younger of two siblings, Gemoto  doesn’t have to pitch in for her family’s expenses, though at times she still does.

Training

“All of us have work—me, my father, mother and my elder sister,” she said.

Working students are also attracted by the high quality of training, especially in conversational English, and experience that the work offers.

Some working students said that “gaining experience and knowledge” motivated them to do call center work, according to the UP study.

Nina Criselda Magyani, a 23-year-old marketing management student from St. Joseph’s College in Quezon City, said that aside from the pay, she wanted to enhance her English-speaking skills.

The eldest among four children of a housewife and a businessman, Magyani became an agent when her father started a water pumps business, which put her family in a tight financial situation.

The intense  training on English speaking did help Magyani. “I was able to practice and hone my conversational English, so my pronunciation and diction improved,” she said.

Juggling act

But students in call centers aren’t spared from work-related problems. As with all working students, they have to balance their time between work and studies. But their performance in school is adversely affected because they work mostly at night.

The Lorenzana and Molina study noted that tardiness and absence from school ranked highest among the problems working students face, followed by the lack of proper rest.

The study attributed these problems to the lack of time due to the demand of call center work and school requirements.

For Gemoto, juggling work and academics is tough. “I was ditsy most of the time since I have to go straight to school after work.”

Although she can arrange subjects to fit her work schedule, she still has to contend with her classes that are mostly in the morning.

Her supervisor assigned Gemoto to night shift—from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.—to accommodate her. Still, Gemoto’s schedule is tight and she must do a lot of time management. ‘You have to make room for everything, even if your schedule’s too tight.”

Hardly any rest

Magyani’s schedule barely afforded her time for rest. At her first job, her work was from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., with school from 8-9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Worse instead of studying, she would often opt to sleep. Aside from that, her participation in class was affected. “I often fell asleep in class.” At times, she just didn’t attend classes.

Working students adapt to the unique demands of call center work in a number of ways.

The Lorenzana and Molina study said working students would compensate for their lack of time during workdays by studying during their days off and by reducing  time for leisure activities.

Magyani would rather stay at home on Saturdays and Sundays to sleep, instead of hanging out with friends.

Aside from that, she would study during her breaks at work. “I would browse through my lessons at my workstation,”  she said.

Magyani observed that her other student coworkers, mostly from Polytechnic University of the Philippines, were diligent in making up for their lessons. “They bring their lessons to the office so they can study them,” she said.

Some call center agents complain about their irregular schedule, which is constantly being rotated.

Schedules bid out

Gemoto noticed that many call centers organize schedules by bidding them out—depending on employee performance. For her, this system is disadvantageous for working students.

She complained that most of the time, high-performing agents—who were not working students—got the preferred shifts, leaving the rest with not-so-good ones.

Working students can’t compete with full-time workers because the latter can focus on their work. That’s why most of the time, working students are caught in a dilemma; either they stop working or quit school.

With its promise of high pay, training and experience, call center work is still a viable option for many students. Even those who have firsthand experience still say that the pros of the work still outweigh the cons.

Tough, rewarding
Arvy Matematico, a human resource and operations management student at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila, said that though call center work was very tough, it was very “rewarding.”

Coming from a broken family, Matematico, who works full-time during weeknights in a call center  on Ayala Avenue in Makati lives with his aunt’s family.

His work has given him a sense of usefulness in the family. “I can help in family expenses—I pay the phone and water bills.”

For Matematico, call center work is hard, but with the right attitude one can adapt to it. “Self management is important here.” For example, during his first months at work which was timed during the final exams, he prepared long before the exams.

A small number of working students aim to grow their careers in the industry. The UP study found that only a number of them were lured by the “opportunity of career growth.”

Pragmatic solution

This may be because most of them consider the work as a “pragmatic solution” to their pressing financial needs, the study said.

Uligan attributed this to the perception that call center work amounted to being stuck on the phone. “But what agents do is really something else—they are advisers helping people fix their problems. It’s just that the medium is through the phone and the computer,” he said.

For him, there is equal opportunity for all in call centers. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a college graduate or not. As long as you have the talent and the skills, you can make a career out of it,” he said.

“I enjoy my work, so I might as well stay and grow here,”  Gemoto said.

Already, there are offers of high positions for her in the country and abroad. “But I would need an IT degree to qualify,” Gemoto said. That is why just a semester ago, she took a leave from UP to pursue an IT degree sponsored by her company.

As these working students ponder their future, all agree that work has a lot to offer them.

“You will learn a lot from the training and experience,” Magyani said.

“With the right motivation, working students can take it,” Matematico said.

Though the job is not for everyone, it offers a lot of reward to those who will stay on. “Succeeding in the job depends on one’s perseverance and determination,” Gemoto said.

(Noli A. Ermitanio is an editorial production assistant in the

Inquirer’s Opinion section.)

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