I spent months at a major department-store call center during college, hassling customers to make just one small payment on their store credit cards so they could go back to shopping. Once, I made an old woman cry, because she had more than $1,000 in credit-card debt and didn't know she had to pay it back.
"I just don't know math," the old woman told me, sobbing over the phone. "I just don't know how to pay these bills."
The year I worked at a call center, in 2007, some 415,400 other Americans held similar jobs nationwide, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Now, eight years later, that number has jumped to well over a half million people.
And it's young people like me who are flocking to the industry. In 2013, some 40% of customer-service representatives were between the ages of 20 and 35, according to BLS. That same millennial age group made up 31% of the total labor force in 2013.
There’s no job security. If you’re not getting leads, you’re taking up space, and then you get let go.
It's a sentiment echoed by Paul Stockford, research director for the National Association of Call Centers, a nonprofit think tank.
“In the past, we’ve referred to them as being white-collar sweatshops,” Stockford told Refinery29. “You’ve got people crammed in shoulder-to-shoulder, back-to-back.”
Amanda B., a 28-year-old call-center recruiter in Los Angeles, said she started out working in this exact kind of environment. She asked that we not use her real name because she is still working at a call center.
“It’s a race of numbers, and you’re being pushed by the people walking the floor, who are trying to get you to get the lead,” Amanda told Refinery29.
...we’ve referred to them as being white collar sweatshops, You’ve got people crammed in shoulder to shoulder, back to back.
Because of the stress, Amanda says call-center jobs just aren't worth it as a long-term career unless you can work your way up into a more senior role.
“There’s no job security,” she says. “If you’re not getting leads, you’re taking up space, and then you get let go.”
Amanda says the company she works for has replaced 300 workers in less than eight months. She confirmed that the majority of people who sign up to work at her employer are millennials.
Stockford says that many of these companies look for young workers who are hoping to start a career.
“If you have a pleasant voice and tough skin, and can deal with someone yelling at you for something you didn’t do, you can get the job,” Stockford said.
I barely made it through that training phase...But my mother reminded me to be grateful about having a job at all.
Her first such job was at a large insurance company's emergency call center, Allen says. There, she says the number of phone calls per shift was overwhelming. Disgruntled customers were bounced around to different departments, and company taskmasters made sure all the calls were answered and the employees stayed focused, she says. Employees were not allowed more than two 15-minute breaks per day.
Allen says that while it was stressful, much of it had to do with the type of company it was — she was regularly speaking to people dealing with emergencies. She says that's why she didn't stay there long.
“Yes, a call center does get stressful…but it’s the same as clothing manufacturing,” Allen says. “Some are good, and some are literally sweatshops. You have to find a good company where employees are treated with respect and have good opportunities.”
Allen says she was recently promoted off of the phone lines at a software company, and now works directly helping customers set up their software.
“I’m really loving the new job they gave me,” Allen said. She added that call centers like her current employer are “a good way to get a foot in the door, a good place to grow, find what you excel at, and then they can move you on from there.”
'I just don’t know math,' the old woman told me, sobbing over the phone. 'I just don’t know how to pay these bills.'
As for Amanda, she said she was able to make the switch to a recruiter position in just two months. She had previously considered quitting because of the atmosphere.
“I love [recruiting]," Amanda said. "It’s the best, non-stress job I’ve ever had.”
As for me, working at a call center didn’t directly open a door into my current career. But some of the lessons I learned along the way have stuck with me.
I still have a tendency to smile while on the phone to sound more pleasant, a skill taught to me in my two-week on-the-job training.
Back then, I barely made it through that training phase, having decided that the $10 an hour I was earning wasn’t worth the humiliating phone conversations and invasive supervisors. But my mother reminded me to be grateful about having a job at all.
As a young mother without a college degree, she once worked at the very same place. She told me that back then, it was one of the few jobs a woman, especially one without a degree, could work in, make good money and potentially parlay into a more lucrative career.
Allen and Amanda B. know what my mother means.
“It definitely helps people,” Amanda said. “When you’re in a rut and you can’t find a job…that’s what you can do.”