Wired for jobs

Call center and data center positions provide much-needed employment

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The arrival of Frontier Secure’s call center has been important
to Wise County, says Carl Snodgrass. Photo by Tim Cox

The list of Southwest Virginia’s recent economic announcements compiled by the Virginia Economic Development Partnership is a picture of diversified development. Automotive steering components, natural flavorings, meat processing, woodworking — the region is developing and expanding a variety of industries.

One project, however, stands out on the VEDP list, a call center being developed by Frontier Secure is expected to create 500 jobs in Wise County. “Well, that’s projected over three years,” says Carl Snodgrass, the county’s economic development director. “They are approaching 300 now.”

According to Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s office, Virginia competed with Georgia, Kansas and South Carolina to get the call center, which may answer your questions if you have trouble e-filing your taxes this year.

The call center handles “Quickbook and TurboTax and things of that nature,” Snodgrass says. McAuliffe called the project “a testament to the strong workforce, business climate and strategic investment potential in this region,” and the rest of the state.

According to the VEDP tally, Frontier invested no money upfront. Snodgrass says that’s right, except for bringing in some equipment. “We got some grant monies to help with the project,” he says, that require Frontier meet performance promises, such as creating all those jobs. But most of the work and money that went into preparing Frontier’s new facility came from local and state government.

The Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority approved a $5.6 million loan to the Wise County Industrial Development Authority for the deal. The Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission approved $2 million in Tobacco Region Opportunity Funds. Virginia Jobs Investment Program helps with training, and other state funds are potentially available for the project. The county’s Industrial Development Authority took care of transforming a shell building in the county’s industrial park.

“It was a shell building with nothing but a gravel floor,” Snodgrass says. “We got their building specifications, worked with a local architect to design and a local contractor to build, and they actually turned the thing around — finished out 55,000 square feet for them — in about 90 days. We were under a pretty tight schedule on that project.”

Frontier moved in last August. The IDA still owns the building and leases it to Frontier.

“It’s important to the county,” Snodgrass says. “Of course, you know, we’ve lost a tremendous number of jobs from coal mining and mining support jobs, too.”

In December, the county’s unemployment rate was 7.6 percent — at a time when the state figure was 4.1 percent. “These jobs, obviously, don’t pay the pay scale that the coal miners earned,” Snodgrass says.

Still, these jobs pay pretty well — about $35,000 a year with benefits, Snodgrass says. That’s about $300 more than the national median annual salary at a call center in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Two counties to the north, in Buchanan County, a call center faced a different situation. Administrator Craig Horn says the Sykes call center was able to retain 100 jobs that could have been lost.

“They saved jobs by servicing a different company,” Horn says, “but we didn’t gain any.”

Sykes had been handling customer service for Bank of America and MetLife, Horn says, but lost those contracts. Sykes expected to close the call center, then changed course when it got another contract.

“We were going to lose all the jobs that were up there, which was between 200 and 300,” Horn says. “So they’re trying to get back to the 300. I don’t know where they are now, but I think they’re back over the 200.”

In December, the unemployment rate in Buchanan County was 8.9 percent — 4.8 points higher than Virginia’s rate. Horn says that, because of the county’s population, it is unlikely to land another call center.

“We’re a small county, as far as population [fewer than 15,000 people between 18 and 65, according to the Census Bureau] so one call center, if it’s very big, does us because turnover on those is pretty high,” Horn says. “You need a big population.”

The county is trying to recruit data centers “because we have some advantages for that,” Horn says. The county’s industrial park has redundant phone, power and broadband to accommodate a data center’s needs.  We haven’t had a lot of luck with that, yet, but we think we may be able to get one of those sooner or later.”

Wise County already has one. The DP Facilities data center opened last fall. It’s next door to the new Frontier call center, but it’s a very different business, assuring customers that data stored there will be safe. In fact, the company’s website guarantees “sensitive and valuable data will be protected and preserved at all times.”

The company promotes the site as remote but not inaccessible, calling Wise County “The Safest Place on Earth.” DP Facilities says the county will “insulate the facility from natural disasters, blackouts and attacks on large population centers.” Nonetheless, it is located near a private airport.

The center’s 30 jobs include armed security personnel, who are on duty around the clock. The pre-cast concrete building is protected by anti-ram fencing and other barriers, a perimeter blast berm and extensive video and counter-surveillance systems.  The company boasts of State Department-certified barriers and Defense Department-approved anti-terrorism standards. Access is controlled by biometric and key card systems.

“I can’t even get in it,” Snodgrass says. “You have to have a real good reason to be over there.”

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