The words economic development flow easily across the lips of New Mexico politicians who build their careers on promises of improving the quality of life and improving the state's unemployment rate by bringing a steady flow of new jobs to town. However, in order to make good on this promise they often resort to courting flighty companies that bring with them low-level, menial jobs and an abrupt exit strategy that leaves the local economy staggered.
Jeremiah Robertson, a 27-year-old Texas native moved to Albuquerque four years ago to pursue a college degree at UNM. However, in order to keep afloat financially he took a job at the MCI call center in the Northeast Heights on nights and weekends. Like an increasing amount of people, Robertson's journey for a new life soon found him swamped under a stack of bills. From a car payment to insurance, rent and basic living expenses, he had to put off his dream of a college degree and begin working at MCI full time as a customer service representative, the anonymous voice you talk to you when your phone service is on the fritz.
"Life isn't cheap, and sooner or later you have to accept that you gotta do what you have to do to pay those damned bills," said Robertson, whose girlfriend recently told him that she is pregnant.
For Robertson, like the 12,700 other Albuquerque residents who man the city's more than 20 call centers, the decision by national companies such as MCI to locate here was a godsend. Entry-level positions typically afford salaries of more than $9 an hour; the hours are flexible and the job security is something to build your life around. Or so he thought.
MCI, owner of the biggest call center in Albuquerque, recently announced its plans to close Albuquerque operations this summer. The technology giant, still recuperating from Enron-style bankruptcy in 2003, will leave 800 Albuquerque residents without jobs when the call center officially closes July 30.
Carolyn Tyler, a spokeswoman for the company, said "several negative factors" led to the decision to close the center in Albuquerque. MCI—which shed the scandal-tainted name WorldCom in 2002 in an effort to overcome two years of managment malfeasence that left the company $35 billion in the red—claimed to have a bright future prior to last month's announcement. Having also survived an $11 billion accounting and fraud scandal in 2002, the company seemed to be on a comeback campaign, leaving employees with a reasonable sense of job security.
"They were offering trips and other things as incentive for employees to stay," Robertson said, adding that he had discussed a promotion with the company just weeks before the announcement.
According to MCI's website, the recently implemented Do Not Call Law has impeded the company's ability to solicit new business and, along with reduced revenues nationwide, forced the company's decision to close several call centers nationwide. In addition to Albuquerque, Denver, Phoenix and Colorado Springs are also losing MCI call-center jobs, the website said.
The company's plan for streamlining its services, which is expected to save more than $600 million a year, will inevitably impact Albuquerque's economy. Meanwhile, local officials who continue to sing the praises of call center-style economic development, not surprisingly, remain thankful for the cash flow MCI provided the city for many years.
"MCI has been an excellent and steady employer for more than a decade," said Gary Tonjes, president of Albuquerque Economic Development. "The company served as an excellent training ground for many people."
Tonjes admitted that basing Albuquerque's economy on call centers is a bad idea but said he thinks they play a vital role in creating entry-level positions.
"We need a diverse economy with companies that have opportunities for advancement," he said. "However, companies such as MCI provide many people ways to establish themselves in the work force."
Still, many people question whether call centers are the best way to improve Albuquerque's economy. MCI is one of many national companies that has admitted to opening its call centers in lower-income cities like Albuquerque because of the large labor pool of people hoping to anchor their family's income, even at $9 an hour.
Marianne Tomasini, whose husband is an engineer at Sandia National Laboratories, worked for a short time at the local MCI call center. She said during that time she overheard many administrative conversations about the company's unabashed eagerness to relocate to cities such as Albuquerque where it can take advantage of the supply of families looking to supplement a spouse's government-based job.
"Working at a call center is a good job, but those jobs are here for a reason," said Tomasini, one of the more than three million Americans who work for some period of time at a call center every year. "It's no secret that they take advantage of the city they're in and move on when they feel it's necessary."
But MCI is not alone in suddenly leaving the Albuquerque workforce scratching its head after once promising sustainable employment. In late 2002, the Philips semiconductor plant was closed, taking with it more than 600 jobs.
The closing of the MCI call center has sent state politicians reeling, many who boasted about their role in bringing those companies to Albuquerque. Rep. Heather Wilson, (R-NM) announced just several months ago her three-year economic plan that relied heavily on the continued success of the state's call centers. Upon hearing the news of MCI's plans to leave, she personally urged the president of MCI, Michael Capalles, to reconsider, although the pleas obviously were ignored. Interestingly, Wilson has received more than $20,000 in campiagn contributions from MCI-WorldCom over the past several years.
Rep. Tom Udall, (D-NM) issued a statement a week after MCI's announcement calling it "a loss for Albuquerque that will impact the economy." He also expressed concern that MCI was simply cutting U.S. jobs to save money while sending the jobs overseas.
Cappalles has vehemently denied that MCI outsourced the Albuquerque jobs overseas, a procedure that's becoming increasingly popular among companies nationwide. Increasingly well-educated and English speaking workforces in countries such as India have made the move more appealing to companies such as MCI, who have sent several portions of its production there.
"There are no plans to outsource the Albuquerque portion of our company," Tyler said. "It's an unfortunate situation and we are doing everything we can to make it easy on our employees there." As examples, the company is encouraging the 800 employees to attend job fairs and is organizing resume-writing workshops to help them find employment, she said.
Meanwhile employees like Robertson will nonetheless be stressed to find another job before the situation becomes a financial nightmare. "Business is business I guess, but it seems unfair," Robertson said. "But life goes on I guess."