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.