I’ve been talking about this trend for almost a decade but when you read about New Brunswick’s economic ‘troubles’, this rarely shows up on anyone else’s radar.
In 2003, New Brunswick had 25,000 people employed in the administrative and support services sector (NAICS 561) or about 82 out of every 1,000 people employed across the province (8.2 percent). In 2012, there were 17,440 persons working in that sector ( a 7,500 drop – in a small province like NB) or 56 per 1,000.
As you can see from the graph, before the call centre boom circa 1991, we had fewer people employed in this sector compared to the national average and then we boomed to nearly double by the early 2000s. Now we are headed back down to the national average.
I would argue this trend is having a more profound impact on the overall employment situation in New Brunswick than any of the other usual suspects including public sector austerity. 7,500 private sector jobs in this province is huge.
When I raise this with my colleagues I get a nonchalant shrug. I am told this is an inevitable trend. The online world is eliminating the need for call centre workers. Some say it is a good trend as we ‘didn’t want people working in that low wage sector anyway’.
You would prefer them unemployed or working in even lower wage sectors such as retail, personal services, etc.?
There are several points I would make on this issue:
1) Yes it is inevitable that this sector will employ less people over time. But it should not be inevitable that New Brunswick would decline even faster than the country as a whole.
2) A number of managers have told me that it is far easier to recruit new Canadians into call centre positions in the Toronto area than in New Brunswick. Once again, our approach to temporary foreign workers and immigration is dysfunctional. We attract immigrants that can’t find work here but make very little effort to attract immigrants into available jobs.
3) The industry is moving online and we should be moving right along with it. We should have social media experts working from NB. We should be a national centre for online customer service. Our universities should be R&D hubs for online customer interaction research.
It is shocking in some respects how we let that sector rise to 25,000 workers – and never gave much of a thought how we could leverage that into a longer term, durable sector for the province. Now we are down to 17,400 and there is still almost no serious debate on how to move this sector forward.
Technical note: For those of you familiar with the SEPH survey, you will recall that NAICS 561 has multiple sub-sectors including office administrative services , business support services , investigation and security services , services to buildings and dwellings  and other support services . Telephone call centres are a segment of this sector. It is also true that some of New Brunswick’s ‘call centres’ are likely being classified by Statistics Canada in other sectors such as finance and insurance. This distorts our ability to have a completely accurate picture of the change in overall ‘call centre’ employment. Insurance employment, for example, has been rising in recent years. However, NAICS 561 is a good proxy for the call centre industry (the best we have).