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Ringing in the changes: The Philippines' call center boom

By Pamela Boykoff, CNN
April 30, 2012 -- Updated 0508 GMT (1308 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Philippines has more call center workers than India
  • Industry experts estimate the business is worth $11 billion
  • Soft accent and historical ties to U.S. make it popular with American companies

Editor's note: CNN International's Eye On series is visiting the Philippines. Read and watch in-depth reports from the country online and on TV until May 14.

(CNN) -- It is 1a.m. at the Manila offices of VXi and nearly everyone is on the phone.

Hundreds of employees, each wearing a headset, are answering calls from thousands of miles away, providing technical advice and sales services to customers of some of the United States' best-known companies.

VXi is at the center of one of the Philippine's greatest economic success stories of the last decade: call centers. Industry experts estimate that the industry here has grown to $11 billion and employs over 600,000 workers. That's even more than in India.

"You'd be hard pressed to find families that don't have one person in their families employed in the call center industry," says Eppie Titong, senior site director at VXi's Manila office.

You'd be hard pressed to find families that don't have at least one member employed in the call center industry.
Eppie Titong, senior site director, VXi

While the Philippines has struggled to grow other industries such as manufacturing or tourism, the country has found it is uniquely positioned to excel in the call center business.

Thanks to historical ties to the United States, the Philippines has a large, English-speaking population, with an accent that many consider light or easy for the American ear.

Most Filipinos are also familiar with American cultural exports, ranging from American Idol to Krispy Kreme donuts. This informal bond, employers say, makes it easier for them to relate to Americans over the telephone.

Philippine culture is also known for its hospitality. "We are friendly," says call center supervisor Audison "Ives" Tan Dejos. "We do care. We have the empathy."

On the economic front, the Philippines is an affordable place to do business. An entry-level call center employee can make about $470 a month, which is a very good salary for the Philippines but far less than their counterparts are paid in the U.S. or Europe.

The influx of outsourced jobs is a major gift for a country that struggles to put its more than 90 million people to work. The official unemployment rate is around 7% and many people are forced to settle for part-time jobs.

Not that the call center industry is going to fix all the country's employment problems. 600,000 is a drop in the bucket compared to the size of the population and these jobs are targeted primarily at those with a college education.

"Who can provide jobs for moderately skilled workers like high school graduates or less educated workers?" asks Norio Usui, Senior Country Economist at the Asian Development Bank. "The Philippines has plenty of such workers also."

For Tan Dejos, whose wife also works at VXi, the work is stressful at times but it allows them to comfortably support their three children. He doesn't mind the night shift, he says, and he likes the challenge of being in an emerging industry.

Would he want his kids to work at a call center?

"I would," he says without hesitation. "It's really up to them."

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