Around the State
More phone jobs coming to town doesn't thrill city officials, but call center workers see benefits.
Jacksonville's reputation as a call center capital continues to grow. Outside of Tampa, northeast Florida has the state's highest concentration of telephone bank workers. Local officials have mixed feelings about the jobs. Privately, they complain about low wages and high turnover, and are quick to say they've stopped recruiting those businesses. But publicly they defend the operations for absorbing low-skill workers and offering a clean industry that's growing.
With or without active recruiting, the city now has so many call centers that they're having trouble finding enough workers. As the labor pool dries up, companies are nudging salaries upward and offering more perks in an effort to slow turnover. "We're hearing more of them talking about that," says Mike Switzer, Enterprise Florida's vice president of workforce programs.
Examples: Household Finance Corp., which opened a customer service center last fall, added an employee fitness center in February. Missouri-based Metris Cos. will offer on-site day care and a restaurant when it opens a call center this spring. After conducting an in-depth survey of employees to analyze chronic turnover at its facility, MediaOne decided to up its wages. The company also included full-time call center employees in its stock option plan late last year. (Comcast Corp., a Philadelphia Internet and cable television provider, recently announced plans to buy MediaOne. The purchase isn't likely to interfere with Media One's local expansion plans.)
Call center pay here ranges from just above minimum wage to about $16 an hour. At the lowest level, workers merely read scripts; others may answer questions and solve problems. Most of Jacksonville's jobs cluster toward the lower end. A Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce study showed entry-level customer service jobs averaged $10.19 an hour in 1997, up from $8.97 in 1994. Telemarketers' average hourly wage has risen from $9.88 in 1994 to $11.07 in 1997. Not all workers get benefits; many are part-time. At Convergys, the largest call center here with 7,000 employees, officials declined to reveal the number of part-time workers.
It's hard to determine the exact number of Jacksonville call center employees because the positions can't be neatly categorized. A chamber of commerce database indicates just under 43,000. An upward trend is clear in state labor figures. The number of business-service workers in the Jacksonville area grew by 10.4% last year to 64,500, according to the Florida Department of Labor and Employment Security; that's the category for most call center jobs.
New centers continue to come in, and existing ones are growing. The newest big player, Metris, plans an 800-worker center. Evergreen Sales & Marketing Services announced a 100-person center. Household Finance Corp. expects to double its workforce to 400 employees. MediaOne is building a new center here that will house its current 125 phone bank employees plus 275 more. The city may not recruit call centers anymore, but the area still caters to them. Florida Community College has developed customized curriculums for call center jobs.
With Jacksonville saturated, centers are branching out into the northeast Florida region. "They have to start looking into smaller communities," says Pam Wilcox, projects manager, Ocala/Marion County Economic Development Commission. Marion has three call centers now and has been inundated by inquiries from site-selection consultants. Says Wilcox: "We tell them if they're not paying at least $7.50, don't bother."
The Davis family, principal owners of the Winn-Dixie Stores (NYSE-WIN) supermarket chain [Florida Trend, March 1999] and insurer American Heritage Life (NYSE-AHL), made a stunning announcement: It plans to create a small town, Nocatee, with 14,000 homes and 30,000 residents, on 15,000 acres of family-owned timberland. Most of the property is in northern St. Johns County, with the rest in southern Duval County. The plans of DDI Inc., a private Davis family company, dwarf other housing developments under way in the area. Some environmentalists are disappointed the land won't remain undisturbed, but the Davises say they'll set aside 7,000 acres for greenspace. So far, county officials have yet to dissect the fine print of the plan; the community is expected to evolve over 25 years.
In the News
FERNANDINA BEACH - Mike Bowling has launched a new line of the popular tiny stuffed animal toys he created. Since hitting the market in 1985, sales of Pound Puppies have exceeded $1 billion. Bowling moved his enterprise here from Cincinnati in 1993.
JACKSONVILLE -- Blueprints for the first new downtown single-family homes in 50 years are moving through city agencies. The project, St. Johns Place, would be developed by NationsBank Community Development Corp., which wants Jacksonville to finance $1.5 million in infrastructure improvements and make a $1.5 million direct contribution toward the 63 townhomes, which would start at $129,000.
In Springfield, a struggling historic neighborhood just north of downtown, Texas developer Venture Resources is converting a 1926 elementary school into a 15-unit gated apartment building.
Meanwhile, as residential construction booms in the region, construction laborers are in such short supply in Jacksonville that builders are begging for students for building-trade apprenticeships.
Brooks Health Foundation gave University of Florida a $2.5 million grant to establish a center to study rehabilitation treatments for strokes and long-term illnesses. J. Brooks Brown, chairman of Brooks Health System, is a long-time figure in the local medical community.
University Medical Center, which handles the bulk of the city's indigent patients, laid off 58 people this spring in an attempt to cut losses of $900,000 a month. The medical facility and Methodist Medical Center recently completed a merger with Gainesville-based Shands HealthCare.
Armor Holdings Inc. (AMEX-ABE), a security services and equipment supplier, will up its sales base significantly with the $41 million cash and stock purchase of California-based Safari Land Ltd. Safari, a manufacturer of gun holsters and similar items, had sales of $45 million last year. Armor Holdings reported sales of $97 million for 1998. The purchase marks Armor's sixth since 1996.
Encore Development, a Web application and data warehouse services firm for large companies, plans to grow to 100 employees by the end of the year. Founder Tom Leonard started the company in his home.
First Union Corp. plans to cut 300 Jacksonville workers as part of its post-CoreStates Financial merger and restructuring. About 250 employees in other Florida cities are also expected to lose jobs.
MARION COUNTY - Marion boasts more horses and ponies (17,205) than any county in the U.S., according to a 1997 federal census. But Marion was third in horse-related income ($57.6 million) behind Fayette and Woodford counties in Kentucky.
Economic development and business leaders continue their dogged fight for air service. After a study showed the region generates at least 54,000 air trips a year, officials are pressing Delta Airlines for five daily hops to Atlanta. Big airlines, however, seem deadset on lowering their number of routes.
Signature Brands LLC, maker of cake decorations for Betty Crocker, is undergoing a $2.9 million, 25,000-sq.-ft. expansion and will add 45 employees to its 202.
COLUMBIA COUNTY - A 1.3-mile stretch of U.S. 90 that cuts through the area's main business district has been widened to six lanes in a $7 million roadwork project.
From the vantage point of his riverfront office, Jacksonville construction magnate Preston Haskell followed the construction of the new Fuller Warren bridge with more than average interest as the project fell further and further behind schedule and its budget climbed higher and higher. On weekends, Haskell, a longtime civic leader, even visited the site to monitor the progress. So, when a Florida Department of Transportation spokesman said the delay and cost overrun was caused by debris littering the St. Johns riverbed, Haskell cried "baloney." In a blistering letter to the DOT, a copy of which he sent to the local newspaper, Haskell said the "real reason for the delay is found in the superstructure work, which is characterized by disorganization, mismanagement, poor sequencing and inattention to the critical components of the work." Although the Haskell Co. has designed and built six buildings for the DOT over the years, Haskell said somebody needed to question the construction delays on the Fuller Warren bridge, which carries I-95 over the St. Johns River. Nor is Haskell finished in his criticism of the state DOT. He plans to draw attention to the DOT's slow-moving project of widening Riverside Avenue, a main downtown artery that runs in front of Haskell's headquarters.