Call Center Lessons

A growing nonprofit gives students part-time jobs and scholarships -- while boosting problem-solving skills.

March 3, 2015
Mount St. Joseph students work at their on-campus call center for Education at Work, a nonprofit organization aimed at reducing students' reliance on loans.

As a student ambassador for Education at Work, Jazmine Reed’s job was to spread the word about the nonprofit organization that offered jobs to college students.

As an informal recruiter on her campus at the University of Cincinnati, her sales pitch was pretty straightforward. After all, a job that is close to campus, pays well above minimum wage and provides the chance to earn thousands of dollars in scholarship money doesn’t require a complex marketing plan.

“They thought it was too good to be true,” Reed said when describing how some students thought the setup was a scam upon first hearing about it. 

Education at Work was founded in 2012 with the aim of teaching the “soft skills" that employers often report are lacking in recent college graduates. But the main driver for founder Dave Dougherty was a desire to help solve the issue of college affordability.  

The organization launched with roughly 25 student employees from a handful of colleges and universities in the Cincinnati area. Within a few months, the number had doubled.

Now, there are about 615 students employed by Education at Work, and Dougherty expects to see that number rise to 1,000 before the end of the year. In 2013 and 2014, the organization paid a total of $4.2 million in wages and tuition assistance.

And in October, Education at Work took the first step in its goal to expand across the country by opening a second call center. Now, students at Mount St. Joseph University can forgo the 30-minute commute to the company’s main offices and instead walk to work at their on-campus call center. Students from other colleges work at the company's headquarters in Norwood, which is right outside Cincinnati.

A network of domestic call centers might sound like a risky -- or at least, outdated -- business venture to some. But if anyone should know the business of call-center customer service, it’s Dougherty. He worked for 20 years, including 4 as CEO, at Convergys Corporation, a global customer management firm that brings in annual revenues exceeding $2 billion.

While a lot of business has gone to call centers overseas, the U.S. demand for customer service is still a $160 billion market, Dougherty said. Education at Work’s clients include large companies such as Macy’s and Cincinnati Bell.

Dougherty says his interest in helping college students dates back to his own days at the University of Michigan. He snagged a job working for the financial aid office, which made him eligible for a scholarship that reduced his out-of-state tuition to in-state levels. The job also gave him work experience that helped to get him noticed and ultimately hired by Procter & Gamble.

“[The job] put me on a path that has been a very good one for me professionally and personally, so I’ve always been thankful for that,” he said. “What we’re trying to do here is recreate that experience for this generation of students.”

After being hired by Education at Work, students go through 60 hours of paid training. Dougherty said the training and experience on the job helps students develop their proficiency in problem solving and communication, two skills that get major emphasis when employers are asked what they want in employees.

On top of the $9 per hour pay, employees are eligible for tuition assistance. As an incentive to make sure the time the company invests in training doesn’t go to waste, students can't collect tuition assistance until after they’ve worked for four months. 

After that, awards are based on a student’s course load and grade point average. Students can earn up to $3,000 in tuition assistance per semester, including the summer term, with a maximum of $6,000 per year. At public institutions such as the University of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky University, that covers between 55 and 70 percent of a year’s tuition. The award covers about a quarter of the tuition at Mount St. Joseph, a small private liberal arts college.

Linda Pohlgeers, director of the Career and Experiential Education Center at Mount St. Joseph, helps oversee the campus’s new call center. When parents hear about the hourly pay and the size of the tuition assistance grants, their interest perks up pretty quickly.

“Amen,” Pohlgeers said with a laugh when asked about parents’ responses.

The university was an early supporter of Education at Work, investing start-up money in the form of a trust fund for tuition assistance. The money came from a grant to Mount St. Joseph from the Cincinnati-based SCsic no initials? sj The SC stands for Sisters of Charity, but the foundation goes by SC (no periods) Ministry Foundation. 

Sophomore Alexis Benjamin is one of about 100 Mount St. Joseph students who work at the center, where she started in August. She was attracted by the organization’s mission of helping students graduate without having to borrow a ton of money.

“I didn’t want to come out of college swimming up to my eyeballs in debt,” she said.

She also likes the work, which she says keeps her on her toes, since every customer has different needs.  

Education at Work employees have to work a minimum of 15 hours a week, and shifts can be broken down into short, 2-hour periods so students can schedule work in between classes.

As Dougherty looks to expand the reach of Education at Work, he’s looking to mimic the partnership with Mount St. Joseph. The university provided the location for the call center, and the business supplied the staff, training and equipment required to run the center.

Dougherty’s growth model includes reaching 2,000 student employees in Cincinnati, where he anticipates a second on-campus call center, before taking the idea to other regions. The plan is to launch in a second city by 2016.

Education at Work also is working on developing a way to track its former employees in an attempt to measure the company’s success. The early indications are positive, Dougherty said. The company only has data so far on 12 former employees who graduated, but their average debt was about half the national average, according to Dougherty.

Reed, the University of Cincinnati student, doesn’t need to wait until she graduates next year to see the effect on her loan accumulation and tuition payments.

She’s received $4,500 in addition to her weekly earnings since starting at Education at Work in May. The money has allowed her to pay off her tuition and other student fees with few loans.

And next month, she’s headed to Paris and Brussels as part of a study abroad trip for marketing students. It will be her first time leaving the country, and she says she was only able to afford it because of her tuition assistance from her job.

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