In defense of telephone operators

Mark Andrew Lim
Often looked down upon by society, call center workers may just be the next national heroes for their contributions to the economy

When I was a student at UP, I often heard professors lamenting that many college graduates were opting to become “telephone operators.” As a proud “iskolar ng bayan,” I agreed with them and dreamt of going to graduate school and becoming a “sexy public intellectual,” but life happened. I became a young father and needed a job. So I became a telephone operator.

I discovered that my professors were not just intellectual snobs; there was some truth to what they said. Working as a call center agent, especially on the night shift, was hard work. Turning my body clock upside down was hard enough; it was even harder when schedules were changed frequently, sometimes from one week to the next. It was hard not to feel desperate spending a rest day catching up on sleep only to wake up the following day having to drag myself to work again.

Working as a call center agent was not only tiring; it was also alienating. I began to feel like a cog in a machine, a worker in an ever moving assembly line with the product of my labor so intangible and distant from my daily tasks. Since every minute counted, I could not leave my workstation at will: I had to ask permission to pee! Because there had to be enough people to man the phones, my fellow agents could not go on break at the same time so it happened quite often that even after going through a tough day of two hundred calls, I had to eat lunch alone. 

To unwind at the end of the week, we usually had drinking sessions after the Friday shift, soaking up our stress in alcohol, singing videoke as the rest of the world was waking up, and then going home past noon – the end of our happy hour.

So, in a lot of ways, what my professors said was true. A call center job seemed like a dead end job and a waste of talent for the country’s highly educated young people. Yet was that all there was to it? After working in the industry for 8 years, I actually learned other better and more hopeful truths.

ON THE JOB. Lim shares hard lessons he learned as a telephone operator.

Lessons learned

First, I learned about the dignity of work, no matter how humble or boring it might be. I learned that supporting oneself through work was the beginning of self respect. Many call center agents seem to be spending most of their money on Starbucks, or the latest smart phone, but most are also the breadwinners of their family: financing the education of siblings or paying for the medical bills of ailing parents. I myself had no choice because I had to support a newly arrived, screaming bundle of joy. It mattered immensely to me that I was able to start a family on my own two feet, lack of sleep and sore throat notwithstanding. I would take a call center agent anytime over a bum still relying on parental support because he thinks himself too smart to work for a call center. I have worked alongside agents who studied in the day and worked at night and went on to become lawyers or nurses, making a living, and making choices like adults while still pursuing their dreams.

Second, not only are call center agents working, they are working here in their homeland where they continue to see their family. For those with children, they are able to raise and nurture them here rather than halfway across the globe. OFWs deserve to be called heroes for propping up the economy, but we pay the social cost with an entire generation growing up without close parental guidance. The BPO industry now contributes P16 billion dollars to the economy, approaching what we earn from remittances. If we count the ripple effect, the contribution is even more. Because call center agents work after dark, there are more people flipping burgers at midnight, more vendors selling cigarettes, and more taxi and jeepney drivers plying their routes at night. Telephone operators may yet be called the next generation of heroes of the economy.

Third, I saw true equality of opportunity in the industry. I worked with agents without college degrees who were promoted to management. I worked with housewives starting a career as the kids started going to school. I worked with a retired grandmother who decided to go back to the workforce in her sixties to augment her pension. With the industry growing so fast, people who would not be able to get a job in other industries because of age and other restrictions are finding that the ability to speak English and provide good customer service are enough to build a new career.

Not a dead end

Finally, I witnessed how people grew professionally with as much speed as the industry, which grew from zero to nearly a million employees in just a decade. As new deals were signed, agents like me had to be promoted to team leaders, then eventually managers and executives. Far from being a dead end job, call center agents with the right talent and who worked hard, soon took the express elevator in the climb for corporate success. Just in their late twenties or early thirties, they found themselves managing hundreds of people and millions of dollars. Beyond call handling, they soon learned about people management, financial management, process improvement, strategic planning, and sales. With the industry at the forefront of globalization, they collaborate on a daily basis with colleagues from around the globe. In short, call centers are developing young leaders who demand high standards, have highly developed skills and who have a global mindset.

I did not end up becoming a sexy public intellectual but I do not regret starting out as a humble telephone operator. I, like hundreds of thousands of others, have learned the value of work, earned self respect, continue to contribute to the growth of the economy and the creation of jobs, and learned how to lead. Not bad for a telephone operator. –

Mark Andrew Lim, 29, graduated from the University of the Philippines Diliman and has been working in the BPO industry for 8 years. He is now a director of operations for HR outsourcing at IBM, the world’s leading technology services firm. 

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