How Big is Nova Scotia’s Call Center Industry?

I have been thinking about the call center industry a lot lately, thanks largely to our local Chamber of Commerce Newsletter daily newspaper which will keep printing headlines like the one last week proclaiming that workers receiving their first paychecks from the Sydney Call Centre were “on cloud nine.”

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m sure the workers in question were deeply relieved to receive a paycheck and to have a job again after the strain of the ServiCom bankruptcy, but this insistence on painting businessman Anthony Marlowe, who bought ServiCom’s contracts and re-opened the Sydney center, as the second coming of Jesus Christ is not going to end well, mark my words.

Marlowe himself probably can’t believe the free publicity he’s getting in this burg — his Twitter feed is now almost non-stop retweets like this:


Which, frankly, is a nice break from his usual retweets which look more like this:

(Can you be “AMERICA FIRST!” while you’re opening a call center in Canada? I mean, wouldn’t a truly “AMERICA FIRST!” kind of guy have re-opened the ServiCom call centers in Michigan which is in — you know — AMERICA? Or is Marlowe “AMERICA FIRST” the same way Donald Trump is — as in, promising to put Americans back to work while requesting and receiving “at least 192 visas for foreign workers in 2018?”)

But I digress. (Honestly, you have no idea how much I digressed — I found myself reading about Marlowe’s wedding in Chicago Style Weddings magazine. He proposed in a helicopter — I don’t think they were under enemy fire but the article doesn’t actually say. She had nine bridesmaids. They had a “live artist” paint the reception as it happened. The master of ceremonies was “a well-known in-arena host for the Minnesota Timberwolves.” There’s no mention of a t-shirt cannon but I like to think there was a t-shirt cannon. Anyway, as I said, I digress…)



The point of this article is not to explore the lifestyles of the rich and famous, but to explore the size of the call center industry in Nova Scotia, which is what I’ve actually been thinking of when I think about call centers.

I started wondering when I read a 2003 Deloitte & Touche report (on what was then called the “tele-service industry”) which listed all the call centers operating on Cape Breton Island at that time:

ICT Group in Sydney, opened 1998

Ron Weber and Associates in Sydney River, opened 1999

EDS in Sydney, opened in August 2000

Upsource in North Sydney, September 2001

Stream International in Glace Bay, October 2001

Spiegel in Sydney (at NSCC Marconi Campus), October 2002

I also stumbled across a paper presented by Joan McFarland at the 2009 Atlantic Canada Economics Association entitled, “Nova Scotia and New Brunswick: Creating Call Centre Industries” which calculated the price tag attached to those call centers:

In March 2000, a $65 million Economic Adjustment Fund was established by the government of Canada as “its response to the restructuring and privatization of the Cape Breton Development Corporation (DEVCO) and the closing of the last of its coal mines.” Almost half of the funds from the Cape Breton Growth Fund, as the adjustment fund came to be known, went to call centres in Cape Breton. The first such call centre was EDS with 900 jobs in Sydney. EDS received $13 million from the Growth Fund and $8.4 million from Nova Scotia’s Economic Development department — $21.4 million in all or $23,777 per job created. In February 2001, EDS announced the creation of an additional call centre with 400-450 seats in Port Hawkesbury. The Port Hawkesbury call centre received $2.5 million from the Cape Breton Growth Fund, $2 million from Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation and $4.5 million from Nova Scotia’s Dept. of Economic Development. In all, this works out to $21,176 per job created. Later, in August 2001, Stream announced a 900 seat call centre in Glace Bay to be located in the old mine building. Stream got $10 million from the Cape Breton Growth fund and $2 million from HRDC which works out to $13,333 per job. In August 2001, it was announced that Upsource was setting up a 60 seat centre in North Sydney. It got $475,000 or $7,787 per job (my calculation) from the Cape Breton Growth Fund.

By 2003, Gardner Pinfold was reporting 3,470 full-time equivalent jobs in the tele-service industry in Cape Breton:

As for the future, Gardner Pinfold (in a 2003 report) said:

We estimate future employment needs in the order of 1,500 more employees over the next two years. Further expansion beyond that is difficult to assess. For the purpose of this analysis, we assume conservatively that further expansion of about 500 jobs will take place between years two and five.

In other words, by 2008, the industry would be employing 5,520 people in Cape Breton.

Of course, Gardner Pinfold are not psychics and no matter how much silver crossed their palms, they couldn’t know that by 2008 the world economy would be in free-fall, or that off-shoring would have caught on like wildfire in the call center industry, or that the Canadian dollar would strengthen so dramatically against the US dollar.

Still, I wanted to compare the total number of Cape Bretoners working in the “tele-service” industry today to those 2003 predictions, and that’s when I discovered how hard that figure is to pin down. In fact, I couldn’t even pin down the size of the industry in the province.


Numbers game

My first thought was to ask the provincial government but rather than answering, they directed me to Contact Centre Nova Scotia (CCNS).

I spoke to the association’s past president, Marco Colaiacovo, who told me CCNS is a “not for profit association wholly funded by members.” (Which it may be, but NSBI is listed as one of its “founding members,” the government pointed me to the association when I asked about the industry, and the association developed a “comprehensive 3-year Strategic Plan” for 2014-2017 with “the support of Department of Labor and Advanced Education.” As usual in this province, the line between public and private is a little blurry.)

Colaiacovo was very pleasant to speak with. (We had a wider ranging discussion than is reflected in this article and which I will revisit in a future piece). His day job is with Hinduja Global Solutions or HGS, a “global leader in business process management (BPM) and optimizing the customer experience lifecycle.”

I asked for his best estimate as to how many Nova Scotians worked as call center representatives — a figure which would include people working in traditional call centers like the one that just reopened in Sydney, people working in-house in companies like Staples or Eastlink (also CCNS “founding members”) and people working from their homes.

Colaiacovo put the figure between 13,000 and 15,000, which is the number found in the association’s Strategic Plan. But when I looked for a source for that number, things got a little muddy. The Strategic Plan states:

While published figures [emphasis mine] suggest that employment in the contact centre industry accounts for roughly 13,000 direct jobs, it is estimated that the true impact of the sector is much greater.

The report gives no source for these “published figures.” When I asked Colaiacovo how he reached his 13,000 to 15,000 estimate he told me by email:

Benchmarking exercises we conduct periodically. CCNS is very much integrated in the Contact Centre industry in Nova Scotia, it is imperative we understand size and scope of the sector so we can work with Organizations and Economic Development agencies to grow the industry.

I don’t know what these “benchmarking” exercises are or how effective they are.

But I do know that the CCNS numbers are much larger than those given to me by another source — Statistics Canada.


NOC 6552

Under the National Occupational Classification (NOS) system, call center jobs are category 6552 positions: Other customer and information services reps.

According to the most recent numbers from Stats Canada, as of 2015, there were 3,520 people working full-time in such jobs in Nova Scotia — 2,100 of them in Halifax. That leaves 1,420 employed outside Halifax — but not necessarily in Cape Breton.

Here’s what that looks like in the rather beautiful chart I generated on the StatsCan website:

I asked Colaiacovo why the StatsCan numbers were so much lower than the CCNS numbers and he said:

The sector is dynamic as I have explained. The NOC information does not give the picture.

The CCNS Strategic Plan goes further, explaining that the “true impact” of the sector is not known because “staff working in in-house contact centres, such as banks and government agencies, is captured under other industries in official statistics.”

I decided to ask StatsCan what it made of the discrepancy between the two numbers and I received a response from Martha Patterson, a senior analyst in the labor statistics division.

First, she told me that I could add workers in the NOC 6314 category to my total. This category:

…captures the supervisors of people in 6552 (and of people in 6551, so it is not a perfect match). In Nova Scotia, there were 300 people in this occupation according to the 2016 Census.

But she told me the Census was the best source Statistics Canada had for this information:

We checked some of our other employment data sources, and obtained estimates that are in the same ball park as the Census, but the figures are not able to be released due to small sample sizes at that level of detail.

The NOC codes, she said, are assigned “based on what individuals report as their primary task.”

NOC 6552 would capture all people whose primary task is to provide this kind of customer service, regardless of where they work (i.e. in a dedicated call centre or “in house”). So if there are people who are providing this kind of service as a secondary task, this may be one source of difference between the Census figures and the other estimates you obtained.

Finally, she noted that people who work in call centers in occupations other than service reps — admin assistants, cleaning staff, etc — would not fall into the NOC 6552 category.

I have to assume CCNS would not be including admin assistants and cleaning staff in its numbers. As for people who provide this kind of customer support as a “secondary task,” it may be counting them, but I’m not sure it should. You’d really need a more detailed view of their overall jobs to decide if they qualified as contact center workers.

Basically, I’m left without an answer. Or rather, I’m left with two possible answers: either the contact/call center industry in Nova Scotia employs about 15,000 people or it employs 3,820 people.

Does it matter that it’s a hard number to pin down? It does, obviously, when it comes to estimating the impact of the industry on the economy — which even the CCNS admits it is unable to do:

[L]ittle is known about the full contribution of the sector to our province’s GDP. Despite significant investment in the industry by the private and public sector in Nova Scotia, the total economic impact of the industry is not well understood. Developing a clearer picture would help in elevating the profile of the sector in NS.

We spent millions of dollars developing the industry on this island and today, nobody can tell me how many people here are even employed in it. (Even the CCNS says Cape Breton “remains an area that could be more fully engaged.”)

I wonder if there’s a customer support number I could call?

Featured image: Call center agentPGBS, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.