Call centres make a valuable contribution to the economy

Brian Dolaghan, Invest NI.
Brian Dolaghan, Invest NI.

Since our establishment over 10 years ago, Invest NI has provided support to a range of business and customer service centres – often referred to as call centres or contact centres – to set up operations in Northern Ireland.

These centres bring with them many benefits to the local economy, not least the creation of thousands of jobs and the generation of millions of pounds per annum in salaries.

The article that appeared in the Londonderry Sentinel on Thursday, November 5, inferred that the support we have offered to these service centres has been ‘doled out’ without any thought or benefit, inferring that this was a poor use of public funds. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Our support for these projects has promoted over 10,600 new jobs, over 7,900 of which have been created to date; and generated a total investment of £336m in the Northern Ireland economy. Consider this against the £64m that we offered and that is a return of over £5 for every £1 we offer – a healthy return on our investment and one that continues to deliver over £80million, per year, into the economy in employee wages and salaries.

Customer service centres are often criticised for offering salaries at the lower end of the pay scale. Invest NI aims to support job creation opportunities across a range of academic and career skillsets. Indeed, in this respect, contact centre jobs have a number of unique characteristics in that, they offer avenues into employment for those at a lower skill level or the long-term unemployed, providing valuable opportunities to develop workplace skills and get a foot on the career ladder. These jobs tend to offer flexible employment in a range of positions and the opportunity to develop important, transferrable skills.

With unemployment amongst the young a significant issue across Europe, and with economic inactivity in Northern Ireland running at 27.8 per cent, these type of projects have a significant part to play in the development of the economy.

We do appreciate however that, like any commercial venture, some projects that we have supported do not continue to grow as expected or unfortunately, in a few case, have had to close. While this is never a desirable outcome it is important to realise that, even in such circumstances, economic benefit will have been delivered both in terms of salaries into the economy and important job skills development albeit for a shorter timeline than anticipated.

On the flip side, we have seen many companies that provide customer service solutions go from strength to strength. Take Teleperformance, for example. It first established a site in Bangor in 1998 and opened a second site in Newry in 2007 and employs circa 1,800 staff across these two sites. Just last month we announced a further expansion by Teleperformance, setting up a new customer service centre in Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh. This new centre will create 800 new jobs over the next four years, generating £12million of salaries into the local economy every year.

And there’s Convergys in Londonderry, which we announced in 2014 would be creating 333 new jobs, injecting £5million annually into the local economy. The company has not only delivered but exceeded this commitment and currently employs over 400 people at the centre in the Ulster Science & Technology Park.

Finally, I would add one further point of clarification to last week’s article. The support we offer a company to establish in Northern Ireland will only be paid to the company when specific targets and milestones are met. For example, if the support is to create jobs, we will only release funds once the company demonstrates the jobs are in place. Consequently, rather than “dole out” money we will only release grant claims when we are satisfied that the agreed conditions of such support have been met. It is clear that call centres, or business and customer service centres, have and continue to make a significant contribution to the Northern Ireland economy. Therefore Invest NI will continue to work to support such projects for as long as they deliver positive, tangible benefits for Northern Ireland.