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In March, the U.S. Small Business Administration sent out something akin to a distress signal. COVID-19 relief operations were driving a dramatic increase in calls for help. The pandemic "is an unprecedented disaster," said the federal agency that supports small businesses and entrepreneurs, in a request for proposals to call center vendors.
The U.S. awarded a contract in April at a value of nearly $20 million to Liveops Inc., a cloud-based call center services firm. Liveops, which specializes in remote, gig work and is based in Scottsdale, Ariz., has added about 4,000 positions in the past five to six weeks.
There is "no comparable information" to know the call volumes COVID-19 might bring. The Small Business Administration (SBA) helps businesses get assistance under the recently approved U.S. Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
It was expecting call volumes to increase from about 20,000 to 60,000 calls a day or more, the SBA said in its proposal. The vendor selected had to be able to adjust to unknowns, it said.
Liveops workers are part-time. In this gig model, agents select shifts in 30-minute increments and can sign up for as many as they like, Liveops CEO Greg Hanover said.
Gig work average age
Liveops, founded about 20 years ago, sees itself as a gig work pioneer. The company hires people for work-from-home jobs who are often looking for flexibility, Hanover said. Its average worker is a 38-year-old female, and about 80% of its workers have some level of college education, he said.
Most Liveops call center work is business-to-consumer support. The pay ranges from about $12 to $15 an hour for basic call center work, but up to $30 for more specialized work involving healthcare and insurance sales.
On a weekly basis, the active number of Liveops agents before the pandemic was between 15,000 and 20,000.
Hiring at Liveops is virtual, although a phone call to a candidate may still happen, Hanover said. Liveops uses iCIMS, an applicant tracking system and recruiting software.
Greg HanoverCEO, Liveops Inc.
"This is high-volume sourcing," Hanover said.
To help improve the success of its hires, it works "to share as much as we can in terms of being realistic about what the work is," Hanover said.
Prospects can watch videos about the jobs and join live online sessions to ask questions about the work. Liveops also has self-paced training for new hires.
Worked with SBA on questions
Hanover said it worked with the SBA "to collect program details and anticipated questions" about the SBA assistance program.
Within 24 hours of receiving the contract, Hanover said, Liveops had created online self-paced training content for its workers. The efforts included building a single online FAQ resource, which is continually updated. "Agents can get up to speed in a matter of hours," he said.
Liveops said that about 3,000 of its agents "selected SBA as a program they decided to support."
Ray Bjorklund, president of government IT market research firm BirchGrove Consulting LLC in Potomac, Md., said "it is indeed impressive when a company can ramp up hiring that quickly." He added, "However, the devil is in the details: The contact center employees must be trained in what the statutes permit and in the evolving processes for making these tranches of money available."
Call centers are one of the areas that are still hiring, but the hiring rate is below pre-pandemic levels, according to data from CareerBuilder LLC, an employment talent acquisition firm.
Demand peaked in July 2019 when 10,000 new call center jobs were posted, according to CareerBuilder. In 2020, call center roles are still being posted to the jobs site, but the number of jobs has fallen below the 16-month average at 3,000 to 5,000 each month.
Although overall demand is past the peak, "there are still opportunities for job seekers looking to fill these positions," said Liz Cannata, senior manager of HR operations at CareerBuilder. "Job seekers will continue to look for remote opportunities, and companies will offer them to get access to a wider talent pool and reach top candidates."
Beyond the SBA, the government sector continues to see call center growth. Paul Stockford, president and chief analyst at Saddletree Research Inc., in Scottsdale, Ariz., which conducts research on contact center and customer care industries, said there "has been a surge in demand for customer support for a number of government segments, such as unemployment benefits processing, and in verticals such as financial services" because of low interest rates.
The surge in demand has happened in the last six weeks, Stockford said.
"Any expansion is likely to be short-term," he said of the call center demand. "Capacity to process unemployment claims is unlikely to continue once the economy gets started again and the population goes back to work."
Business process outsourcers "are well-versed in scaling up and down based upon economic conditions and demand for customer support," Stockford said. "They seem to be the beneficiaries of the current fluctuations in demand."