European Workers Fill Call-Center Gaps in India

Calls to customer service centers frequently lead to a worker in India. But demand for call-center workers has far surpassed the number of skilled workers available. Some companies are hiring Europeans to fill the gap.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Okay. Most people know that when you call customer service you often find yourself talking to somebody in India. Increasingly though, the people on the other end of the line in India might just be from Britain, or Scandinavia, or Germany. The call centers are booming so much that skilled Indian workers have become scarce, even in one of the world's most populous countries. So Europeans have started signing up.

Susan Stone reports.

SUSAN STONE: For some, the journey to a new job in India begins here, at this bustling office in Bonn, Germany.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

STONE: It's the German arm of the European online travel agency Ebookers, which serves 13 countries. Jürgen Witte who is managing director here, works between continents. First, he trains German employees in Bonn then oversees them from a distance and on trips to India two or three times a year. Ebookers has many Indian employees. But Witte says they don't always have all the necessary skills.

Mr. JÜRGEN WITTE (Managing Director, Ebookers): European IT skills; European standards in GDS, meaning the reservation systems, which are quite important; and getting to know the European mentality.

STONE: The call center business has boomed so fast that there's a shortage of qualified Indian workers to fill in the gaps. A report released in December 2005 by global consulting firm, McKinsey, and the Indian IT firm Nasscom, warned that Indian workers aren't being educated fast enough to keep up with ever increasing demand. The Ebookers call center workers are divided into small language teams, each about 12 people - half Indian, half European -representing the U.K., Germany, France, and Switzerland.

Each team works in its own language. So the most difficult team is Switzerland. They're working three languages. The German team is led by a German, Kristina Hermanns, who is in India already for two years.

Ms. KRISTINA HERMANNS (German Team Leader, Ebookers): (Speaking foreign language)

STONE: In New Delhi, far from most of her customers, this young woman from a small town in Bavaria is helping Germans plan their vacations and business trips. Hermanns started to work abroad to save money for her college education. But she also found the adventure of living in an exotic place enticing. The benefits package wasn't bad either.

Ms. HERMANNS: When I arrived in India, everything was set for me already - my guesthouse, I have a cab to go to work, I have a cab to come back to my house, I have someone who's cleaning the house so I don't have to do it myself - so I don't need to spend anything from my salary but for food and for my own luxurious life.

STONE: Which is a good thing, because the Europeans working in India earn Indian salaries. But Hermanns says money is not the main reason she's in India.

Ms. HERMANNS: India is a country where you have everything in one place. And it's amazingly peaceful, even though you have all these different cultures and religions so close to each other. And I think that's something that is attracting people from all over the world, and for the Germans as well, of course. It's a nice country.

STONE: Kristina Hermanns may get some American neighbors soon. Ebookers and travel Web site, Orbitz, are both under the same umbrella company, Travelport. Plans are in place for a team from the United States to join European and Indian call center workers in Delhi.

For NPR News. I'm Susan Stone.

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