My Advice to Graduates: Don’t Work at a Call Centre This Summer
You won’t save any energy or ambition for that other career you want to launch.
Source image courtesy of Dimension Films | Art by. Noel Ransome
I'll never forget my first call centre job interview. After someone had suggested I could make "quick and easy" money, one summer my best friend and I found ourselves in the basement of an office building that smelled like baked beans. Separately we entered a room with sheets of paper in both English and French and asked us to read paragraphs. A few sentences in he asked me to stop. "Alright, you got the job." The only requirement for our employment was literacy.
You know those people who call you when you're at home and ask if you'd like to complete a survey over the phone? That was me. The basement was filled in tiny cubicles only big enough for a human body to sit in front of a computer. For hours, a system would auto-dial numbers and without trying to sound too desperate, I'd ask strangers if they wanted to participate in surveys about the most mundane topics like "how much dairy do you consume?" One thing I learned is that nobody remotely normal responds to telephone surveys, almost only old people or perverts (or both). This means being roped into very long conversations which would quickly become stressful because we were expected to keep phone calls as brief as possible (so we could take as many calls as possible).
Our shifts were no longer than five or six hours but they felt endless. To make time go by quicker, my best friend and I would use post-it notes to cover the time on our computer screen (only to learn that 10 minutes still felt like 40 no matter how hard we tried). Because the only way to get a job was knowing how to read, my fellow employees were mostly students like me or total freaks. We soon found out the reason why the basement smelled like baked beans was because our coworker (who we called Bumblebee Guy because he always wore black and yellow) would place a can of Heinz Baked Beans behind his CPU to keep warm throughout the day. I was both repulsed and slightly in awe of his resourcefulness.
I quickly left the job while my friend lasted a bit longer. Going back to retail, which felt like the best job in the world compared to doing surveys, I swore I'd never step foot in a call centre again. Less than a year later, I found myself right back on the phones. While this call centre was far more legitimate and desirable as a job—it was full time, had decent benefits and paid well over minimum wage—it was still a call centre.
A few days into the weeks-long training, it was obvious there was a reason why it was relatively well-paying was because it was internet tech support. The job was mostly enduring several hours of abuse a day from people who couldn't restart a modem or who got very upset when you suggested any type of solution. We had to follow exactly what the company told us to do when trying to resolve issues to maintain "quality" and consistency, and we could never sass customers no matter how mean or nasty a call would get. As the company's lowest ranking employees, it also meant we found ourselves the recipients of all criticism, regardless of whether or not anything was our fault.
Here's the thing about call centres, you promise yourself it's temporary. A universal rule about any job you hate is that even though the work days last forever, the weeks and months zoom by. Everyone tells themselves the same thing, "Once I save enough money to (insert ambition), I'm out of here!" "This is just a cushion until I figure out what I want to do!" But before you know it, you've spent 100 hours playing Skyrim after work until 4:00 AM because your hours suck and you don't get home until midnight.
I was slowly becoming my own version of Bumblebee Man, heating up a figurative can of beans behind a computer. I had effectively given up on living life beyond work, and my loved ones were noticing. One day at lunch, my successful and ambitious best friend confronted me about where my life was headed. I echoed the same excuses I had been giving myself, telling her it was temporary, that I was just gearing up for "real life" until she told me I was bullshitting myself and would never quit.
If you're a student and plan on working at a call centre while you figure things out, do yourself a favour and do literally anything else.
The job got worse the longer I stayed in small but significant ways—success targets became more impossible to reach. One thing about call centres is that you're so replaceable management can get away with screwing you over in almost every way. Even the "lifers" who somehow liked the job and been working there for more than a few years (which is 20 call centre years) were disposable. People would disappear or quit without notice, with no real explanation or goodbye. Towards the end of my employment, nothing bothered me anymore. I was utterly desensitized to irate customers, all the coworkers I hated, the 3:00 PM to 11:00 PM shifts that left me with no free time to do anything but work and play video games.
I only ended up leaving the call centre after being told to take a stress leave by my doctor. Noticing I had lost a significant amount of weight and that my mental health was not in a good state, she told me I was very close to a total breakdown. During my "recovery" I was finally able to really see how a two-year long "summer job" sucked away all my ambitions and goals. I got the job at a time when I had no idea what I wanted in life and used it as a way to prolong having to make a choice or self-reflect.
Many people work at call-centres and they don't hate it (maybe they even like it), or they have families and responsibilities so they don't have the privilege of quitting even if they do hate it. But for me as a student who needed a type of push in life (because I didn't have one), it became the centre of my existence. If you're a student and plan on working at a call centre while you figure things out, do yourself a favour and do literally anything else. If you think I'm exaggerating, the British journal New Technology, Work and Employment described the modern call centre as being designed to strip employees of all rights, almost modeled after a prison. While OK, it's not literally a prison—it can turn into your own version of one.
Follow Sarah Hagi on Twitter.