Rescued Redmond call center ringing up more jobs

Portland-based Consumer Cellular hiring 30 a month

REDMOND, Ore. - When T-Mobile announced it was closing its Redmond call center in the spring of last year, employees weren't the only ones who winced at a serious blow to a fragile, recovering Central Oregon economy – so did the city and region.

But very soon, before the doors actually closed, up stepped a new tenant: Oregon-based Consumer Cellular, which sells simple cellphones and plans targeted at seniors and Baby Boomers – and in the year since they moved in, their growth has met, if not exceeded projections.

Now, Consumer Cellular has about 240 employees at the 77,000-square-foot facility off Airport Way, and says it plans to add 30 new hires each month through the end of the year, making for 350 workers by December – just about the number at T-Mobile when it closed (down 50 percent from its peak employment).

Within two years or so, the company has promised to grow the call center to 600 employees – and CEO John Marick said Thursday that could happen "sooner than we projected." The Portland (Tigard)-based company has been doing quite well – last year's revenues of 263 million were up 39 percent.

Redmond Mayor George Endicott couldn't be happier about the way things turned out.

"The informal feedback I've received – anecdotal, if you will – is that they are a great company to deal with, especially for seniors," he said.

"As you know, some of us aren't too technically savvy," Endicott explained. "And the Consumer Cellular employees show great patience in helping folks understand how to use their equipment to get the most out of it."

Patience? In a call center environment, known (right or wrong) for its pressure to keep call-takers moving on to the next call?

Dealing with seniors on the phone – about their phones and bills – must be quite a test of patience at times, and Marick acknowledges that.

"I don't know if you can train for it, but you can preach about it," he said Thursday, prepping for a weekend trip to enjoy Central Oregon before employees hold a big first-birthday bash at the facility.

Marick said the goal is to create an environment for reps to be able to solve customers' problems. And another key, he said, is "hiring people who enjoy helping others."

Along with low-cost, no-contract phones, Consumer Cellular also touts its U.S.-based call centers on its Website; another, based in Phoenix, also plans to hire nearly 30 new workers a month for the rest of the year.

So how is turnover in Redmond so far? Consumer Cellular has held a couple job fairs over the past year, touting "competitive compensation and benefits," which Marick said starts at $13.25 an hour, with regular increases every six months or so for folks who stay on. Then there's the fully paid medical, dental and vision care for employees, a cell phone allowance, 401(k) match, profit sharing, vacation and holiday pay, etc.

"I'd like to say (turnover) is zero," the CEO said. "Unfortunately that's not the case. But it's been better in the Redmond facility than we've seen in other offices. It's a beautiful office, and we really great management there" – made up largely of former T-Mobile managers – and "a good training program."

The current Redmond workforce includes "quite a few" former T-Mobile employees, especially among the first hires, Marick said. There's also quite a few other returnees (of sorts) who worked there for T-Mobile in the past, but had been let go as the facility shed employees, so the workforce is "not necessarily brand new to wireless."

The hiring qualifications aren't too tough – two-plus years of customer service experience, a high school diploma or GED, knowledge of Microsoft Windows and Office, good verbal and written skills, a stable employment history and the ability to "multi-task and explain issues in simple terms."

So how is the workforce supply-and-demand equation? More hopefuls than jobs, or vice versa?

"Probably some place in the middle," Marick said. "I don't know that we've turned away hundreds of people, but we haven't had a problem hiring the numbers we needed. There was some concern, hiring 30 at a time – it's not a huge community, so there was some concern we'd tap out qualified candidates. We're happy with the quality of candidates."

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