Tampa has burnished its image as a hub for call center operations with the recent announcements of more than 1,000 new jobs.
Is that a good thing, given the relatively low status of such employment?
Depends on whom you ask.
It's good, said Rick Homans, president and CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. But he said the area is looking for more in terms of economic growth, particularly in the defense and information technologies sectors.
"We're very proud to have the employers here that call Tampa Bay their home and we want to continue to grow that base, but we also want to expand into other areas," he said. "We want to win a few more badges in addition to the ones we've won in the past."
Mark Vitner, a senior economist with Wells Fargo, said that's true for every community.
Because the defense or biotechnology sectors are more capital intensive, he said, its unlikely that they will create as many jobs, making these call center positions especially welcome to people who aren't engineers.
"It's bad if all we get are lower paying jobs in the area, but workers come with all different types of skill sets," Vitner said.
Even though these new jobs are call center jobs, which aren't typically thought of as "good" jobs, Vitner said there is usually room for mobility within these operations and the workers still learn a skill. As more call centers expand and achieve success in Tampa, it could help attract more businesses and call centers, he said.
"A dead-end job is only a dead-end job if you want it to be," he said.
And not all of the area call center jobs are the call-during-dinner-and-try-to-sell-you-something types.
Some of the call centers are looking for trained medical professionals or licensed claims representatives, hardly minimum-wage jobs. Some offer bonuses, benefits and commission in addition to regular wages.
Time Warner will be adding 500 information technology and human resources jobs at a shared resource center in Hillsborough County, with an average salary of more than $57,000.
Humana announced in January that it will be hiring 149 new employees at its Humana Cares unit in St. Petersburg, where members can call and speak with medical professionals over the phone rather than making costly visits to the doctor or emergency room. Humana did not disclose the salaries for the new jobs, but 84 of them are for registered nurses with three or more years of experience, and the rest are for health coaches and social workers.
Other call centers are moving into the area or expanding to use new technologies.
TruGreen, the Memphis-based lawn care company, is looking to hire about 175 people to staff its new call center in Tampa. Rather than send someone out to measure a customer's lawn to calculate an estimate, employees in the call center will use satellite imaging technology and do it from far away.
Still, Homans said, the area will continue to focus on bringing more high-skill, high-wage jobs to the area, rather than just the call center positions it has so successfully attracted within the past year.
"I think where we're headed is building on the clusters where we have very strong assets," he said, referring to the bay area's call center infrastructure.
"There's a part of the call center business that pays very well and is very rewarding, but we're going beyond that into more technology innovation and trying to change and improve the economic climate of the region."
But the area definitely won't brush off the promise of success and jobs brought in by the call centers.
"Our goal is obviously to move up the ladder in terms of skills and salaries and to attract even more sophisticated and technical jobs, even if those jobs might be at the end of a telephone," Homans said.