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An international job solution

For the past two years, Florida's unemployment rate has been on a downward slide and now stands well below the 4 percent mark considered to be full employment. That's good news for job seekers, but tough on employers determined to grow. Here is how one Tampa Bay area company has dealt with the problem.

By KRIS HUNDLEY
Published May 20, 2006


The issue

Superior Uniform Group in Seminole had entry-level customer service openings but nobody applying for the jobs, which pay $10 to $11 an hour. "When you get to the 3 percent unemployment level, people aren't running around looking for jobs,'' said Michael Benstock, chief executive of the uniform manufacturer. "And with all you're reading about home prices and insurance increases on the west coast of Florida, I don't think the market for entry-level workers is going to get better soon.''

The solution

Superior, which has been sourcing apparel from manufacturing plants in El Salvador for two decades, used a Salvadoran staff leasing company to hire 15 customer service reps who are trained and supervised by Superior employees. The company also added five production planners and six quality-assurance managers to work with its contract manufacturers. The leased workers' pay and benefits are one-third to one-half the total cost of a similar position in Seminole. "We didn't want to get into the rigmarole of establishing ourselves as a Salvadoran corporation,'' said Benstock, explaining why Superior opted to use staff leasing. Completely outsourcing the positions to a professional call-center operator also wasn't an option. "Now there's such a demand for outsourcing that if you can't place 100 seats, they don't want to talk to you,'' Benstock said.

The outcome

Nearly all the Salvadorans now working for Superior Uniform have at least two years of college, extensive computer training and the ability to read English. They handle back-office account functions and respond to customers by e-mail, but so far all phone communication with clients is handled by staffers in Seminole. "If I post a notice in our break room in El Salvador that we have one opening, I have to hire crowd control the next day,'' Benstock said. "I could post a notice here for 50 openings and be lucky to get one person come through the door.''

The Challenges

Superior is moving its customer service staff from the outlying suburb of Apopa to the capital city of San Salvador to ensure a better broadband connection. The company's workers have adapted to a U.S. holiday schedule that doesn't recognize many Salvadoran holidays; on the flip side, they work only five days a week, while most Salvadoran employers have a six-day-a-week schedule. The country's infrastructure has improved over the past few years, and the political climate is relatively stable. "Nothing has really blindsided us,'' said Benstock. "But if we hadn't spent so many years in El Salvador producing (apparel), I couldn't be made a believer.''

The Reaction

Superior's customers are largely unaware of the company's Salvadoran operation. By shifting more back-office functions to Salvadoran workers, customer service workers in Seminole have time for more interaction with the customer. "We made a determination we were not going to eliminate jobs here because they have way too much experience,'' Benstock said. "In some ways, the customer service jobs (in Seminole) have become more interesting than in the past.''

The Future

Superior expects to double its customer service staff in El Salvador by year's end. Encouraged by its success with entry-level positions, the company has started hiring higher-skilled market forecasters in El Salvador. These positions, which require a four-year degree, pay $12,000 to $18,000 in El Salvador, compared with $45,000 to $70,000 in the United States. "The response has been excellent,'' Benstock said of the forecasters hired in San Salvador. "My people here in Seminole are excellent, too; we just can't get enough of them.''

- KRIS HUNDLEY, Times staff writer