LBUQUERQUE — For all her skill in designing Web sites, Alicia Suarez made only $5,000 last year from 10 clients. So she did what many women here do to make ends meet — she took a job in a call center, on the answering end of the "800" numbers that Americans dial so often to deal with the companies that sell to them.
"This may not be the best job, but in Albuquerque, it is better than the last job I had, waitressing tables," said Ms. Suarez, who is 21 and earns $9.50 an hour helping frustrated callers from around the country use Earthlink, an Internet service.
Call centers like the one that employs Ms. Suarez are proliferating, adding jobs at a faster pace than any other major occupation. At least 3.5 million people and perhaps as many as 6 million work in call centers, which are increasingly concentrated in lower-wage cities like Albuquerque, making this work force roughly as numerous as the nation's truck drivers, assembly line workers or public-school teachers.
The centers offer fresh opportunity and flexibility. They draw employees mainly from the 30 million women who, like Ms. Suarez, have a high school degree and a year or two of college. Many are second earners in their families, helping to anchor their households in the middle class despite the middling pay.
But the centers also exemplify a trend in today's service economy that has held down wages of many middle- and lower-income workers. Unlike factories, the centers can be relocated easily to lower-wage cities, or even overseas. All it takes is to ship the computers and communications gear somewhere else. So even as the economy boomed in the late 1990's, surveys show that pay scales held steady at $7 to $14 an hour at most of the nation's 60,000 or more call centers. And the people in the jobs can never feel secure.
Most centers "make a priority of holding down labor costs, and as these jobs multiply, a large mass of women has become more vulnerable to layoffs and to what I would call plant closings," Rose Batt, a labor economist at Cornell University, said.
In part because of the growth of call centers, total employment of women has resisted the recession, declining less since 2000 than for men, who were particularly hard hit by the slump in manufacturing. Still, if the surge in call center jobs has helped to sustain total employment, the women filling the jobs change frequently as the centers are relocated, or shrunk in one city and expanded in another. Contracting out the work has also become increasingly popular.
That is what Earthlink has done, shrinking its call center staff and outsourcing the work to ClientLogic, which hired Ms. Suarez a year ago. In part because of brisk Earthlink business, ClientLogic is expanding here to 780 workers from 600.
"We don't have any shortage of job applicants," said Caroline Jones, director of ClientLogic's operation here. As she spoke, five people in the lobby were filling out job applications and returning them to a security guard at a reception desk. Through the day, the lobby was rarely without applicants.
Albuquerque, population 722,000, is high on the list of cities benefiting from the call center migration. Eighteen companies have opened centers here since 1993, bringing the total to 22, not counting 2 that closed recently, laying off 530 people. Despite the surge, the pay scale, matching the national range, has barely risen since the mid-1990's.
Employment has climbed to 12,730 people, mostly in the last four years. That is 3.3 percent of Albuquerque's work force, up from under 1 percent in 1993. Most are like Ms. Suarez, in need of income but unable to find better-paying alternatives as bank tellers, teachers, office managers or government clerks.
Many operators at call centers are single mothers, but the largest percentage, according to surveys, are married women seeking a second income for the household. They are drawn from local job pools like the thousands of families here attached to Kirtland Air Force Base, Sandia National Laboratory and a big Intel (news/quote) computer chip factory.
"A lot of times, dependent spouses do not show up in labor force data, but quite frankly they are a hidden treasure," said James Beatty, owner of NCS International, which scouts sites for the constantly migrating call centers. "The centers quite consciously locate" near these dependent spouses.
Across the nation, call centers are similarly organized. Equipped with telephone headsets and computers and seated in partitioned cubicles in huge rooms, the operators handle every manner of customer request, not only in American cities but increasingly abroad. New Yorkers calling an "800" number with a question about the Road Runner Internet service of Time Warner Cable are as likely to get an operator in Canada as in the United States. E-mail and Internet communications are gradually adding new twists at call centers.
Despite the growing presence of call center workers, the Labor Department has counted only some of them: 1.9 million customer service agents in 2000 and 462,000 telemarketers, the people who call during dinner with sales pitches. The rest are hidden in other classifications, as technical support personnel (Ms. Suarez), reservation clerks, temporary workers, bill collectors, mortgage brokers, 401(k) administrators or catalog order takers. According to industry estimates at least 3.5 million people work at call centers; three out of four are women.
The 3.5 million represents 2.6 percent of the nation's work force. The total is probably higher, perhaps as many as 6 million, according to estimates cited by Call Center Magazine, including one estimate from Datamonitor, a research firm. In contrast, the nation has 4.2 million production workers and 5.5 million teachers from preschool through high school. The only clearly larger job categories are retail sales and food preparation.
As manufacturing jobs decline, call centers are rising — and borrowing industrial practices from the factories. Professor Batt described the process as the "mechanization of the service sector."
"Companies have tried to routinize these jobs, making them as similar as possible to the old assembly line work where you left your mind at home and tightened bolts all day," she said. The typical call center operator averages 100 calls a day, or one every 4.8 minutes over eight hours.