Confessions of a Call Centre Academic

When, at the age of 30, I started a Ph.D. in history in University College Cork I was pursuing a passion. Nobody does a Ph.D. in humanities for monetary gain, however, I did think that my employment prospects would be improved somewhat. Little did I think that upon completion, four and a half years later, I would be facing into a year and a half of unemployment, underemployment and precarious employment where on two separate occasions I would find myself working in call centres.

The week I submitted my doctoral thesis in April 2015 my wife and I discovered we were expecting our first baby. The following week I was in the dole office. I didn’t expect to be there. This should have been the most exciting time of my life. However, the multiplicity of feelings I was experiencing were underpinned by exhaustion and uncertainty. When I tried explaining why I was there tears welled up. The lady behind the counter told me to take my time. I told her I hoped this would only be temporary arrangement.

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The final version of my thesis just before I submitted it. Picture taken on the bench outside the graduate studies office.

I applied for jobs. All sorts of jobs. I wasn’t expecting to get an academic position overnight but I thought I would get something that was halfway decent. I spent hours on some applications, days on others.  I didn’t even get an interview for any teaching or research positions but what was more surprising was my lack of success in applying for other work which I was more than capable of doing. It seemed the private sector weren’t falling over themselves to hire historians. I got some occasional hours invigilating exams and doing instructional design work in UCC but nothing that lasted more than a few weeks. I graduated at the end of October, my family came down and it was a nice day, but underlying everything was a sense of anxiety. I still didn’t know how we were going to manage.

With our baby due in December I needed any kind of work fast. I applied for a temporary customer service role with Amazon in their Cork contact centre. This centre serves the UK marketplace. Seasonal work in Amazon is sort of an institution for a certain demographic in Cork. My team were a mixed bunch and mostly overqualified. There was one other person with a doctorate but also a medical doctor, a computer programmer, a poet, a musician, a sports therapist and a variety of other people who really shouldn’t have been there. They were a good bunch. Science fiction was openly discussed and critiques of consumerism were part of the daily routine. You hear a lot of criticism of Amazon’s treatment of their staff and it is all true. Working for Amazon is like living under a dictatorship of algorithms where human collaborators willingly do the dirty work. The banality of evil is a term that springs to mind. Everything is about metrics. AHT, Average handling time is measured and so too are survey responses. Every customer gets a HMD, how’s my driving survey, where they rate your performance. If responses to these aren’t satisfactory you are taken aside and given coaching. You get two fifteen minute breaks and one half hour break. You have a total of twenty minutes ‘personal time’ per week with no more than ten minutes to be taken on any one day. If you are late back from break three times you get half a penalty point. If you are over three minutes late for work or leave early you get half a penalty point. If you are out sick you get a point. Four points can lead to disciplinary action and dismissal. You are expected to empathise and apologise constantly. Your psyche is battered by always having to apologise for what other people, or the company, have done. It erodes your confidence and undermines your self-worth. Signs on the wall tell you to ‘Bring the Wow!, and to give the ‘best customer service in the world’. On one occasion my supervisor had told me that while my work was good I needed to become more involved in one of the many voluntary committees in the workplace. This would have involved giving up my own time to organise social events or charity fundraising. Many well intentioned employees spent a lot of time raising money from their colleagues for various charities.  Amazon always publicised and encouraged these events but the money was donated by their workers. The low rate of tax Amazon paid was never mentioned.

Some issues which customers called in about are a result of a misapprehension by the customer. They didn’t understand something or processed an order wrong. Some issues are just basic delays, when millions of parcels are sent out every day some are going to be late or go missing. Many are a result of Amazon’s business model. Temporary contract workers are more likely to slip up than people in permanent secure positions. Agents in outsourced call centres in India, the Phillipines and Jamaica often lied to customers or misadvised them. I can only imagine how precarious their positions must have been. By lying to the customer in the short term they would get a better survey response, even if it created more difficulties in the long term.  Amazon delivery drivers are independent contractors getting paid per delivery. It was hardly surprising that the pressures placed on them meant some parcels were delivered to the wrong place or went missing. Callers were often angry. They shouted and screamed at you down the phone and you had to apologise and empathise. They often said ‘I’m not saying it is your fault but…’, before berating you. They felt angry and disempowered. They needed to lash out at someone and the only outlet they had was the person at the other end of the phone. You were seen as the representative of a major corporation rather than a lowly paid worker and therefore fair game. In hindsight, maybe Brexit shouldn’t have been such a surprise. It just gave people who felt their concerns weren’t taken seriously a chance to lash out.

I didn’t get fired from Amazon, but I wasn’t kept on in January when the Christmas rush was over. My daughter was born in December and I was late (by a couple of minutes) a few times or was late back from breaks as I was on the phone to my wife. Therefore I had some points accrued and I was one of the first to be let go when ‘ramp-down’ came. Every year, Amazon hires hundreds of agents. Half of these don’t even survive training. By the time January comes a lot have quit or been fired. Of the remainder, a percentage are kept on and it is easy to weed out the people who didn’t have good stats or weren’t sufficiently enthusiastic. Through attrition Amazon are left every year with the tiny minority of people who will not only tolerate working there but are actually enthusiastic about it.

Unemployed again I was happy to have time to spend with my new daughter. In a lot of ways those few weeks were a gift but there was the constant worry about money and employment. I interviewed for a position as a technical writer with a multinational and after a drawn out process was informed they now didn’t have the budget for the position. I had a strange full day interview for a customer service position with a superhip tech company and didn’t get the job. A recruitment agency called me to interview, with few details on the position I was interviewing for, and then told me it was working in debt collection. I told them I wasn’t interested. Eventually a difficult decision had to be made. We had moved to Cork when I commenced my Ph.D. and now things just didn’t seem to be happening for us there. I couldn’t find any work, and we were struggling to pay rent and household bills. We also felt very far from our families who lived in the East. We had been considering moving to Dublin but rents were prohibitive, to put it mildly. My parents’ house, however, has a granny flat which was vacant. We handed our notice in to our landlord and moved to Meath at the end of April. We had been in that house nearly five years and it felt like home. Our landlord had never put our rent up and we paid €750 per month from 2011 to 2016. The next tenants were charged €1100 a month. The situation we were moving to was not necessarily our first choice but we knew we were lucky to have it. All of a sudden it was possible to see how a family could easily become homeless. On the one hand well paid and secure employment was becoming scarcer and scarcer and the cost of property was skyrocketing. I found myself shouting at the radio when government ministers talked about the ‘recovery’.

I really hadn’t wanted to work in another call centre but events conspired otherwise. The week we moved I got a job with an Indian company called HCL providing customer service for Eir. HCL specialise in BPO, or Business Process Outsourcing. Something those of us on the left call yellow-packing or race-to-the-bottom. Eir, formerly Eircom, formerly Telecom Eireann and once part of Post and Telegraphs (if you want to get historical) was once a state owned company. It was sold off in the late nineties in a sale where ordinary people were encouraged to buy shares. The shares dropped in value, ordinary people got burned badly, shares were scooped up by investors and now it is owned by a couple of hedge funds and the Qatari royal family. For tax purposes it is headquartered in Luxembourg but many people still think of it as an Irish company. As a legacy of the company’s former semi state status this job was actually unionised but, in all honesty, it may as well not have been, conditions were atrocious. It was decidedly less organised and efficient than Amazon. There was no free coffee, the food in the canteen was awful and the place was, frankly, a bit grotty. The flipside of this was that it was less strict than Amazon in terms of what you could say to the customers and in penalties for timekeeping, although the breaks were more or less the same.

The turnover of staff is huge and ninety percent of people hate the job. It is worth considering if you ever call up to complain to a customer service agent they probably hate the company more than you do. They have to deal with this company on a daily basis and suffer more at their hands than you ever do. The people I worked were primarily young, in their late teens and early twenties, and mostly from Dublin. Almost entirely north-side and working class. I felt too old and overqualified to be there. I worked there for six months and every day it was a struggle. The fact I had a family was the only thing that stopped me walking out. As with Amazon, I was actually very good at the job. I was able to talk to customers, understand the issue and give explanations. My job was made easier by the fact I sounded older and more educated. Many of my younger colleagues received torrents of abuse from customers, I did too on occasion but never to the same extreme.

A large proportion of people are rude or condescending to call centre staff. The stupidest people are usually the rudest. As a call centre worker you have to deal with, on the one hand, your treatment by your employers and on the other hand your treatment by customers. Often their grievance is genuine. It can be the fault of the company or a mistake by an underpaid, undermotivated and undertrained staff member. Regardless, you are expected to sort out the mess and apologise. While I worked there Eir put their prices up for hundreds of thousands of customers. The extra money went to shareholders but it was the customer service staff who had to deal with thousands of disgruntled customers. It feels like death by a thousand cuts. You can be, and I was, disciplined for not apologising. I was also brought to a disciplinary meeting for having been out sick on three occasions. The three incidents had taken place over a six week period. I had a really bad cold that wouldn’t budge and I got chest and throat infections as a result. The job didn’t really allow an opportunity to recover. If you weren’t working you weren’t being paid. If you were there you had to take calls and talking on the phone all day every day only made the sickness worse. The recycled air and poor lighting and work environment exacerbated things.

My disciplinary meeting took place on what transpired to be my last week with HCL/Eir. I brought a union rep along because I could and because I paid four euro a week to be in the union so I felt I should get something for my money. I presented my sicknotes and argued my case and wasn’t disciplined. That Friday I quit when I was offered a few weeks Disability Support work in a third level institution. I started the new job the following Monday and that same day got an email inviting me to interview the following week for a research/report writing position with an agency in the public sector. The ESW work left me with plenty of free time to prepare for this interview and I am happy to say I got the job. As I write this, I will be starting the job at 9am tomorrow. It is an eighteen month contract and the wages and conditions are pretty good (compared to what I am used to!). I am happy to be going back to work I enjoy but the past year and a half has definitely left a mark. The endless applications, the endless rejections and the appalling conditions in jobs I did have dented my esteem, they damage your pride and make you question every decision you made that led you to that point. I am happy to be moving on but I don’t think I will ever forget where I have been.

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10 thoughts on “Confessions of a Call Centre Academic

  1. The situation in Ireland is worrying. Good to read that you got a job that is closer to your area of expertise, congrats! (Isn’t it sad to congratulate people for getting a job they are qualified for? It should be a normal situation… Someone studies, prepares themselves and as a result they get a job doing something related to what they have been preparing themselves for… But it is so hard that those people have to be congratulated like “you got where not so many people get to be”).

  2. Congratulations, Shane, on your new job!

    Your blog post appeared in my social media feed, and I felt compelled to respond, as I had so many of the same experiences – I had to do a double take (dole office; same jobs applied for; PhD; baby; lived in my in-laws’ granny flat for a time). I submitted my History PhD in Dec 2014 and struggled with unemployment, and subsequent lack of job security over the last few years, until I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time for a technical writing position last year. But it is disheartening, even now, to reflect on how lost I was in that employment void, where your PhD often works against you when trying to get work – any work – to make ends meet. I found that my mindset changed most of all – I no longer had the stomach to gamble on applications for research positions. All I could think of was getting some job security for my family (I started having dreams about pensions!). I miss my research sometimes, and I have tried to find a few moments here and there to put an article together and keep it going this year, but babies tend to take a lot of your free time!

    Anyway, excellent piece, and thanks for posting your experience. There are so many of us out there with broadly similar experiences post PhD. Congratulations again on your new job, and on your new(-ish) arrival!

  3. I read, understood, and can empathize with, this post. We endure doctorates out of a vocation for or love of the subject matter, or to allow us to enter higher education as a lecturer, teacher, academic.. with academic inflation now a post doc is almost compulsory (unless you have managed to spend your doctoral years ingratiating yourself within higher admin echelons of the institution.. those of us self funded can also spend anywhere up to 30K in just fees… just an fyi:

    http://academicpositions.eu/ad/university-of-luxembourg/2016/post-doctoral-candidate-in-digital-history-and-hermeneutics/93705

  4. Cheers for this, Shane – interesting read. Sadly, your experience strikes me as simply symptomatic of the direction this country, and indeed many others, is heading – and I don’t really see too many people shouting stop.

  5. Very sad story and I have had many of the experiences you describe, on several different occasions through my last 30 years of working life. Congratulations on getting through and sharing your experiences so cogently.

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