Why Can't AT&T Find Enough Workers to Fill U.S. Jobs?

Ann All

AT&T announced in late 2006 its intent to return some offshore technical support positions to the U.S., a move that, at the time, I blogged should win it some positive public relations and possibly even added customer loyalty.


In a later blog about some British companies that were promoting the fact that all of their contact centers were based in the UK, I cited several surveys that found that offshore centers fared particularly poorly in customer satisfaction levels. (Although admittedly, not many customers reported positive experiences with any contact centers.) AT&T had taken some knocks for poor customer service.


AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson may have canceled out any goodwill the company won with his remarks at a recent business event near AT&T headquarters in Texas. Noting that AT&T had only managed to fill some 1,400 of the 5,000 positions it hoped to staff in the U.S., Stephenson said the company was having trouble finding workers with the appropriate skills. According to a Reuters report, he mentioned that in some communities, the high school dropout rate is as high as 50 percent.

If I had a business that half the product we turned out was defective or you couldn't put into the marketplace, I would shut that business down.

Stephenson's comments garnered a predictable reaction in the blogosphere. Typical was this scathing passage from The Virtuous Republic that purports to offer the true meaning behind Stephenson's words:

Speaking from his gold-leafed covered desk, AT&T CEO, Randall Stephenson lamented the whole promise to bring 5,000 customer service jobs back to America. As we waited from Mr. Stephenson to finish counting his $150,000 weekly paycheck, he continued on, stating that it was really "hard to find educated Americans who would work for $10 a day, without benefits." "You know, if we have to pay these people decent salaries, my bonus to cut wages will disappear and I might not be able to buy my 250 ft. long yacht this year.

CNN's Jack Cafferty threw out the question "What does it suggest about the state of this country when AT&T says it's having a hard time finding enough skilled American workers?" and published some of the responses on his Cafferty File blog. Several of them were from unemployed folks (some with college degrees) who said they'd gladly work for AT&T. The broad consensus was that AT&T wasn't looking hard enough or willing to pay enough.


Yet some of the comments following Cafferty's post presented Stephenson's remarks as a wake-up call that the U.S. needed to put more effort into improving its public education system. I am not sure where Stephenson got his statistics on high school education. Getting a handle on dropout rates is tougher than it sounds, because states use different methods of calculating the numbers, according to the Boston Globe. Using a method accepted by many experts -- dividing total number of high school graduates by the number of ninth graders four years earlier -- the U.S. graduation rate is about 70 percent. Sure, this beats Stephenson's number, but it's still a major cause for concern. Consider that nearly all South Korean students (96 percent) graduate from high school.


Companies like Microsoft and Google realize this and are contributing finances and other resources to programs designed to boost graduation rates, as I blogged back in November.


I suspect at least part of the problem is the nature of the jobs AT&T is trying to fill. While they seem well beyond the abilities of high school dropouts, neither are they highly desirable for those with college degrees (the comments on Cafferty's blog notwithstanding). Until the U.S. economy adds more decent jobs like the support positions AT&T is trying to fill, many students with limited prospects of attending college will likely give up on the educational system all together.

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Mar 28, 2008 6:29 AM Ron Ron  says:
Someone should compare the wage offered by ATT for call center employees with the average wage earned by folks with only a high school degree. I suspect that we'd find that ATT is offering a wage commensurate with a high-school dropout. Anyone recall the old phrase, "You get what you pay for." Reply
Mar 29, 2008 7:44 AM 2Truthy 2Truthy  says:
It's time for AT&T to start investing in the paychecks of their local workers by paying decent wages. $30k a year does not go far for a high school graduate or a college graduate these days. Reply
Mar 29, 2008 9:27 AM American American  says:
I wonder how many customers AT&T has in India? Reply
Mar 30, 2008 4:51 AM Average Joe Average Joe  says:
I work at one of those jobs AT&T claims it has problems filling. They pay $13 an hour, fire you if you're two minutes late twice in a year, give you substandard training and poor benefits. Thanks Randy. Reply
Mar 30, 2008 12:40 PM Michael Michael  says:
You know what? I work for AT&T, I have some college behind me, but I wouldn't consider myself the smartest guy in the room. AT&T has been fair from day one, they have worked with co-workers that have issues, they have explained how they want their sales process followed so that a store experience in NY is the same in CA. I know a lot of people don't like it, but mentally, in this country, we've become lazy. There is a higher dropout rate than what was the norm when I graduated 15 years ago. People are smart, but without even a high school diploma, how many companies do you expect to call you back for an interview?To take this to the next level, how many people that read this blog actually make less than 30k? I work in retail and have done better than that so far at AT&T, but look at it for someone who is new, needs to get their feet wet, move up and all, they can't see how 11 or 12 dollars will do anything for them, never mind the fact that there is no willingness to learn more on their own. Stephenson is unfortunately right, whether or not it has to do with dragging the corporate feet of AT&T or the fact that you can't find good help on a whim within a year. Anyone reading this blog that has kids, do them this favor, tell them to do what they want to do, no matter what the cost. If a child wants to sing for a living, but is tone deaf, teach them how to use pro-tools so they can sound like a million bucks. What is my point? I love technology and the telecom sector of tech, so I love what I do. I could do this as a hobby and be happy, but I get paid so it is all the better. People in the US are way to cynical about it all, "got to get paid" is heard far more than "I need to learn how to do this so I can earn more money". We aren't a stupid society, yet we dumb ourselves down wilfully daily. Blame it on whatever, but in the end, it comes down to doing what you love and if you want to work for AT&T and have the desire to help out customers of AT&T, they'll find the room for you. Someone needs to read "IF" by Rudyard Kipling to their children to teach them about the ups and downs of life. If only there were more skilled workers...Mike Reply
Mar 31, 2008 10:20 AM Max Max  says:
Way to go Mike! I could not agree more. I worked my way up from lowly customer service rep to general manager through the years. The big problem I saw, especially when I got a leadership position (what they used to cal junior management), is that too many Americans want more than they are willing to work for. If you want the higher pay, WORK!!!! Work your way up. Yes, you'll get paid poorly at first. DUH! Stick with it and over the years you'll earn more and, guess what, you'll make a good salary in the end!In almost every company in almost every industry, customer service is considered an entry level job due to the fact that the job typically requires little skill or knowledge. However, you still want people who at least have reasonable speaking and writing skills, hence a high school diploma. But, it is, by definition, a low paying job. Reply
Jun 7, 2008 1:12 AM Dave Dave  says:
I'm with Mike. I too work for AT&T and have for over ten years now. Although I feel I make a very competitive wage now, I didn't start off that high. I started making $8 an hour and was pleased to get it. I do feel that off shoring American jobs is wrong, especially since your consumers are in America. But today's young people, be it high school graduates or college grads want it all and they want it now. I feel that someone who starts at the bottom and works their way up through the ranks will be a bigger asset to the company in the long run. This is ironic, because AT&T normally hires young people direct out of college to call the shots and manage people who have been doing the job for over twenty years. By the way Randy...don't be late! Reply
Feb 11, 2011 2:13 AM Dave Dave  says: in response to Dave

You manafer types are your everyday att boot steppers. You say american workers are lazy but telle something who will work for 13.00 and hour and put up with the stuff att does. I to work for att. I have for 15 years and ever since Mr Stepehson has taken over this company has changed for the worse. It used tp be a company that valued its employees as assets that were not replacable now we are expendable. When an employee feels that way why would they want to stay. If an employee feels like an asset he will give you a good days work. Now they set you up to fail and will replace you with some one else. Turn over is not a good thing. It doesnt create stability. In my current position we went through 4 levels of testing to make sure you were the right kind of persaon att wanted then they invested time and money to make sure you were able to do your job correctly. Now new employees take one test and are poorly trained and expectedn to do a perfect job. Not possible. Now there isnt training. There are emails with tid bits of training and when new things come out you are not notified and you look like a fool going to a customers home to do work you know nothing about. How is that good? Randall Stephenson isnt good for the future growth of thos company. We need a leader like Ed Whitacre. He work his way from cable repair to the top. He knew what it took to do the job rifht and not half ass. Now there are "lazy" employees, every company has them. But you dont lay a blanket statement that all are lazy. Att needs to get back to valuing its employees. If theynare happy than the customernwill reap the rewards with great service. Go to any blog about att service. It will open your eys as to what is wrong with this company. You cant micro manage a corporation and expect success. I have never been inntrouble in my 15 year career so i am not a disgruntles worker trying to get back. I just see the future and its not good given the current regime. Att should expect its employees to work hard but we shouldnhave to be told how horrible we are when we have a bad day. Randall Stephensom ran att intonthe ground till sbc saved their bacon by byingna name. Now he is doing the same thing. Where is the growth. Sure wireless has but that is because of the iphone. Now verizon has the iphone. Att is the only wireless company that DOESNT givenits employees FREE service. We get 19% off . Even with that discount we are still not cheaper than tmobile or sprint. Employees get 20% off uverse. That is horrible compared to other providers. Get rid of your so called "lazy" employees but keep the good ones and let them feel valued.


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