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Buhay Pinay




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Ups and downs of a call center job

14 April 2016

By Sol Banganan
Emeflor Ilagan doesn't worry about the traffic in Edsa. While most other people are on their way home from their offices, she's just starting her day. She travels from her hometown in Pampanga to her office in Tiendesitas, Pasig City, where she works as a Team Leader in a BPO (Business Products Outsourcing), or what is commonly known as a call center company.
A graduate of business programming and management, she once worked for the Manila Broadcasting Company as an executive secretary to the CEO, Fred Elizalde, who also owns DZRH, Love Radio, Yes FM, Star City, among other companies. She later worked as executive assistant to the company, Julio Macuja, before transferring to another high-flying job in Innodata EMCI. She resigned after three years when she had a miscarriage due to her hectic work load.
She then worked as an agent in a call center near her place called TP or Teleperformance for eight years, rising to the post of trainer, quality assurance officer, team leader, then operations manager. She resigned when their account was transferred to a different center.
That was how she ended in Transcom, first at its office in Ortigas, then to Tiendesitas after two years.
Though she sometimes has to wade through bumper-to-bumper traffic to get to her work, Emeflor doesn't mind, as she loves her job. She vows never to leave the industry unless she finally secures the immigrant visa to the United States which she been waiting for, for years.
Emeflor is one of the tens of thousands of Filipinos who now work in BPO, the fastest growing industry in the Philippines.
Many are driven to the job because of the higher starting pay, but not a few opt out eventually because of the odd work hours, or the unsavory reputation that some employees have acquired, rightly or wrongly.
One of the big bosses in a well- known BPO company does not deny that some workers in the industry indulge in too much partying and boozing, but said this is not the norm. "Reputation is what others think of you, character is what you are made of," he says, before adding, "A majority of the workers are young and still immature, add that to the high salary they are getting so they spend like there is no tomorrow."
He, however, took exception to the accusation that many call center agents are drug addicts, saying this is not likely because most companies require their employees to go through an annual physical examination, which includes drug tests.
When the call center industry started back in the new millennium, the companies only hired graduates from the so called top three universities to work as agents: the University of the Philippines, De La Salle University and Ateneo de Manila. But as the industry grew, companies were forced to accept graduates from other schools, or even undergraduates or former overseas Filipino workers and people with disability.
Many of these pioneers now occupy higher positions, as heads of business, operations or training, or as IT managers.
But with everyone who is recruited into the industry, the main requirement is that they should be fluent in English, the main language used by the overseas companies that outsource parts of their business, mainly customer service, to the Philippines and other third-world countries.
An example closer to home would be the outsourcing of the customer service for Hutchison 3, a Hong Kong-based telecommunications company. While the subscribers are in Hong Kong, the people answering their queries relating to their service are speaking to them from the Philippines.
To become agents, trainees are taught in a classroom-like environment by their company, which is hired by an overseas client. The client provides information on its services, while the call center company hires the staff that will service the client. The Philippine company also hires trainers to teach the agents, who take in the calls for the clients or "accounts".
Although the most known position in the industry is that of an agent and a TL or "team leader", there are a lot of other positions pertaining to a certain account and a line of business.
Since most accounts are located overseas, agents are expected not only to be knowledgeable in English and computer but to be able to adapt to the time difference as well. That's why call center people eat lunch at midnight and say goodnight in the morning.
There are also centers that cater to local clients like Maynilad, Meralco, Globe, Smart but the offer is a lot lower than their international counterpart. The only upside is that the agents have normal working hours unlike those who work on the international accounts.
Salaries in the BPO industry currently range from Php15,000 to Php35,000, depending on the company and the position, which are high by Philippine standards. However, the turnover is high because many workers are unable to stand the work hours, or the pressure that comes with the job.
Within the industry, it is a known fact that Americans seem to love to test an agent's patience, and cursing seems to come naturally to most of them. The British are generally nice but when it comes to giving good surveys, they are really stingy. Australians are widely regarded as the nicest ever. Another factor that cause many agents to leave is the inability to adjust to the time schedule. Even if they have time to rest during the day, they still feel sleep-deprived.
Some become unhappy being stuck in an agent position that they lose their drive. They resign but reapply when they can't find an alternative job, making them "hoppers". This is the term used for agents who can't stay in one company for a more than a few months. Although they can easily look for another center or "vendor" because of their knowledge, they usually have difficulty getting into the better companies since their work records will show that they had worked for several outfits within a span of a few months.
Since attrition is high, it is hard for agents to apply for a loan. Salary wise, it is like working overseas but the take-home pay is much lower because of the high 32% tax on their income.
Despite all that has been said about the downside of working in the industry, a lot more still try their luck and stay. With the high unemployment rate and the relatively low starting salary in most companies, call centers continue to attract many Filipinos looking for a job.
But getting in is not easy. A college degree is never a guarantee that one will be hired. Interviewers don't only judge communication skills, they also observe the behavior of the applicants. After all, this is one job where patience and having a pleasant personality matters a lot.
Once you become part of the industry, however, you will be well looked after. You will have benefits like a full medical insurance, which can be extended to your family members depending on how long you have been with your company.
But the best thing in the industry is that there is no discrimination. Old, young, professionals, undergrad-uates, people with disability, gay, rich, poor, black and white all work together without fear of being judged.
The industry is replete with examples of how people have made the job work best for them. They include Richard Watkins, a son of a former US military man who settled in Olongapo. Although he has worked in big US finance companies like JP Morgan and Chase, he says he prefers working with TP in the Philippines.
"(The) Philippines is a lot better than where I've been, no discriminations. At least, I still get to speak with Americans," he says.
But perhaps the most important opportunity offered by companies in this business is the chance for their workers to study while working.
Chester Regalado, who works as an agent in Quezon City, is enrolled at the Philippine Law School, and is grateful because his job pays for his tuition. "I still have two more years before I graduate and I am just grateful that I can finance my studies through my job," he says.
His future plans include starting a union for call center workers since not all companies offer good compensation.
Most of the people working in the industry start as agents, and many have remained at this level. In fact, they make up 80% of all those working in the industry, prompting many to say that, apart from a few exceptions, the career growth here is slow.
While it is not the best job, there is no doubt that the BPO industry has opened a lot of opportunities and lessened unemployment. Among the potential beneficiaries are OFWs who now have the option of returning home and watch their kids grow.
As with most jobs, this one offers both rewards and corresponding sacrifice. If you're happy, you may stay and be probably rewarded well. If not, it at least provides you an opportunity to earn while you pursue that job that your heart desires.

Our guest columnist for this month used to be a regular contributor for The SUN, while working as an OFW in Hong Kong. Since deciding to return home for good more than three years ago, Sol has worked in the call center industry. While the job has enabled her to keep a closer eye on her family, she still says that she does not endorse it "as I believe graduates should work for the course they burned their eyebrows for, for many years." Still, she says, she has no doubt the industry has helped the country a lot in fighting unemployment.- Ed
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