How Telework Is Working in Rural America

By Rachel Brown

The customer is always ____.

The old maxim fills in that blank with “right.” The 3.5 million customer service agents in the United States—who individually field about 50 calls a day—might choose a more colorful adjective. But talk to the hundreds of teleworkers in rural Kentucky and their adjective would be “green”—as in the dollars going into their pockets and the environmentally friendly setup that allows them to work from home.

In the past two years, more than 350 people living within the two-county service area of Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative (PRTC; McKee, Ky.) have landed jobs as customer service representatives for major companies. Keith Gabbard, chief executive officer of PRTC, credited the economic development staff at the local electric co-op, Jackson Energy Cooperative, who set up a meeting with Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program (EKCEP)—a federal agency set up to offer job training in areas of the country with high unemployment and poverty.

EKCEP serves 23 counties of southeastern Kentucky that have been hit hard with factory closures and a declining coal industry. Through its subsidiary operation, Teleworks USA, EKCEP has placed nearly 600 local people into customer service jobs. Most of these are hourly wage jobs—typically starting at $10 an hour or roughly $20,000 a year—and many include benefits.

“This comes out to nearly $12 million in economic impact that’s going back into the community and lifting up the local economy,” said Michael Cornett, director of agency expansion for EKCEP.

A Booming Industry

While $12 million is a significant amount flowing into this corner of Kentucky, it’s only a sliver of the pie. According to Dun & Bradstreet, a market research firm, annual revenues for the U.S. call center industry total $21 billion. The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that jobs for customer service agents in this country are growing at 10% a year—faster than the national average for other jobs.

Call center analysts explain this phenomenon by noting that wages in India and other off-shore call center countries are rising, making it competitive to hire Americans. Paul Stockford, research director for the National Association of Call Centers, also pointed out that more people are resolving simple customer service issues via emails or web chats, leaving the trickier issues for live customer service agents. “Most people, especially millennials, pick up the phone as a last resort, so that leads to calls with high frustration,” he said.

Rural American Edge

To reduce turnover—and to save money on brick and mortar buildings— many call centers are shifting to a work-athome model. There are approximately 71,000 call centers in the United States, Stockford said. “Nearly 35% have some percentage of their employees working from home,” he said. “Of those 35%, when asked about their plans for this year, 60% said they plan to increase the number of employees working from home; and 23% said they’ll increase that number by 50%–100%.”

“Working from home takes the edge off and stabilizes the turnover issue,” Stockford said.