Firms hoping to set up shop in metropolitan Phoenix and pay $8 to $9 per hour likely cannot compete for labor and may consider locating elsewhere, said James Trobaugh, senior vice president of CB Richard Ellis' Call Center Solutions Group.

The increasing wages are significant. Labor can constitute 70 percent of an operation's total cost, making Valley call centers extremely sensitive to even the smallest changes in hourly wages.

The intense competition for workers is also driven by the fact that the Valley counts 302 call centers that employ 102,760 residents, or more than 5 percent of the total non-farm workforce, according to CB Richard Ellis data.

"Once you get 2 percent over your total workforce in call-center jobs is when you start to see upward pressure on wages and turnover," Trobaugh said.

Increased wages in Arizona were a factor in Qwest's announcement last week that it would lay off 360 workers in its customer-service, sales and collections areas of their central Phoenix office.

Call-center positions in the Valley differ vastly in pay and can include positions at help desks, customer support, human resources and information technology.

Cox Communications, with 800 customer-service agents, offers some call-center workers the chance to work from home. It hopes to double the number of teleworkers in Phoenix and Tucson from 50 to 100 by the end of 2007.

During the next 15 months, auto-insurance giant GEICO plans to add 600 workers to its Tucson operations center, which employs more than 500. Starting wages for customer-service representatives will be $12.64 per hour.

At the United Services Automobile Association's massive operations center in north Phoenix, a fountain of Moroccan fossilized stone and a soaring glass atrium welcomes guests into the lobby.

From sleek white cubicles, employees field calls for the company, which sells insurance, banking and financial planning to military members and their families.

Employee Erin Garrett pulls down about $39,000 per year, an annual bonus, health and 401(k) benefits, a pension, reduced day-care fees and set hours.

The single mom was once co-host of a morning radio show in San Francisco and occasional morning weather and traffic reporter and co-host of Sonoran Living for Channel 15 (KNXV) in Phoenix.

"If you look at demography of Phoenix and of Arizona at that time, these jobs were consistent with a big part of our workforce," said Ioanna Morfessis, founding president and chief executive of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council who now owns her own consulting firm, IO.INC.

Valley economic development officials today are more prone to welcome call centers that are units of companies also employing workers pulling down high-end salaries in such departments as human resources or information technology.

However, he added, "If you are a mayor or a chamber of commerce person and you have multiple companies all vying for the same labor force, which may drive up wages, then that's a great thing for your community."

In fact, the term is a very general way to describe companies' operations that are known for taking inbound or outbound calls, or both, according to the National Association of Call Centers.

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