By Jim McKay | Staff Writer
Call centers are giving Kansas City a way to put more people to work and giving them a high-tech foundation to build on.
The call center at the 18th and Vine district in Kansas City, Mo., offers a glimpse into the citys past. Its museums are time capsules commemorating the historical development of jazz and the stars of baseballs old Negro Leagues. Amid these recollections of the past is a story for the future. A Sprint call center has helped lighten the
welfare load and changed perceptions, offering evidence that it is possible to assemble a successful IT workforce in the inner city.
To revitalize an area plunged into the depths of depression, the city poured $24 million into the area, renovating the historic Lincoln Building, erecting the 500-seat Gem Theatre and, with its museums, paying tribute to famous Kansas jazz musicians and baseball players.
Despite those efforts, the area was still mired in social decay and joblessness, with an unemployment rate hovering between 14 and 16 percent. At the same time, telecom giant Sprint was experiencing a shortage of entry-level customer-service workers in its call center in the suburb of Lenexa, some 16 miles from 18th and Vine.
Sprint looked to the inner city for help, and found a local government and its partners that were serious about doing whatever was necessary to bring a telecommunications business to the area and to put inner city residents to work.
Rejuvenating a Community
By 1997, more than 26 call centers were in operation in the Kansas City metropolitan area. The Lenexa center, which routes long-distance calls from around the world, opened in 1991. But because Lenexas unemployment rate had fallen to less than two percent, Sprint was losing employees. They needed to find a new pool of qualified, entry-level employees to help alleviate the costly employee turnover
The Lincoln Building, owned by the Black Economic Union (BEU), housed several small businesses but needed an anchor tenant. Enter the Kansas City Area Development Council (KCADC), which had dreams of bringing a telecommunications business to the area. What developed was a partnership between BEU, KCADC, the Full Employment Council (FEC), the
Kansas City Metropolitan Community Colleges Business Technology Center (BTC) and Sprint.
"There was activity in the area, including the Jazz Museum and the Negro Leagues Museum, some small businesses and an art gallery," said Lori Lockhart, Sprints director of Global Connection Services. "We felt there was an opportunity for us to be a part of that and help the community rejuvenate itself."
But there were concerns, such as the crime rate, that needed to be addressed. So the partnership submitted a proposal to Sprint to quell those concerns. The proposal outlined the "advantages of the inner city," which included some built-in benefits, such as proximity to a large residential area.
"Its been proven over the last three years that it is very safe," said Lockhart. "Our bus routes pick up agents right in front of the building if they dont have cars, and theres lots of business activity. The stereotypes are definitely reduced."
The proposal offered additional training, counseling and some unorthodox measures to ensure the success of a call center, like allowing split four-hour shifts so that employees could leave and take care of business at home between shifts.
"We involved a very solid, comprehensive approach to identification of potential employees and the screening of those employees through our partnership," said Sylvester Holmes, president of the BEU. "We put together a package that addressed the issues Sprint may have had and answered the most important and legitimate question from the private
sector, which is, Will it be good for business?"
The FEC, a non-profit organization that works with the national Welfare-to-Work Partnership, generated 700 applicants and screened 350 of them for the 40 positions at the proposed center. The BTC, which had already been teaching technology skills at its center, helped Sprint with the training of incoming employees.
"We didnt change any of our criteria as far as who we would hire in terms of looking at their customer service aptitude," said Lockhart. "We require some customer service experience and, in this case, because of the partnership with the city and the Full Employment Council, there was a lot of pre-employment training done to help the folks who might have been lacking in those skills."
Sprint provided transportation to Lenexa for new-hire training until the 18th and Vine center was fully reconstructed.
"The partnership was an absolute key," said Holmes. "We were all working toward the same goal. We had different roles, responsibilities and maybe even different peripheral interests, but the ultimate objective and goals were the same."
Blueprint for Success
When all was said and done, Sprint found that, despite stereotypes and perceptions about inner-city life, the new call center in the inner city was not only performing up to Sprint standards, but was actually outperforming the companys suburban call center in Lenexa.
Of the first 30 employees hired at the new call center, the retention rate was 85 percent after 90 days. The average cost of turnover for that period was estimated at $14,526. Compare that to Lenexa, where the turnover cost the company $77,472. Both call centers are still in operation today, and the 18th and Vine center continues to see a lower turnover rate by about 15 percent.
"If [Sprint] were drawing up a blueprint of the project initially, I dont think they would have thought there would be that much of a difference in terms of performance," said Roy Priest, executive director of the National Congress for Community Economic Development. "Its unique to see because the employees are so motivated."
The motivation, said Holmes, comes from having an opportunity for a better life. "Without question, the absolute majority of these people were [previously] either on welfare or unemployed."
The call center is expanding and now employs around 80 people, some of whom will move up the ranks.
"In the last three years, there [have] been some great success stories of agents who have worked through the training at our call center, learned new skills, got new cars and were able to apply for other jobs within Sprint at other locations across the city," said Lockhart, who believes that this is a success story that can be repeated elsewhere.
"One of the main draws that we saw in this whole thing was the fact that the city did its homework," she said. "They looked at the call center industry because its still a growing industry, and [they] talked to a lot of different companies and realized there was a need for the private and public sectors to come together.
"A lot of businesses can go into the urban core, but they dont know who to call for help with employment," said Lockhart. "They dont know where to call for any of the services that the city provides. This was really attractive to [Sprint] for them to package it, know the business needs and present it [all] to us."