Dislocated workers from Duluth call center get help

The writing was on the wall. Computer upgrades didn't happen. Old carpeting wasn't replaced. A hiring freeze was never lifted, even though hiring resumed at the company's other call centers. Still, when about 70 workers received layoff notices at...

Josh and Kristi Worcester
Josh Worcester (right) is among 70 laid-off Duluth AT&T Mobility workers being helped by the Northeast Minnesota Office of Job Training. Coincidentally, Worcester's wife, Kristi, also was helped by the office when she was laid off from her job in 2006. Both worked for call centers; both went back to school for retraining with costs picked up by the program. (Steve Kuchera /

The writing was on the wall.

Computer upgrades didn't happen. Old carpeting wasn't replaced. A hiring freeze was never lifted, even though hiring resumed at the company's other call centers.

Still, when about 70 workers received layoff notices at the AT&T Mobility call center in Duluth in April, it took most of them by surprise.

"It happened after the recession. We figured AT&T was just tightening its belt," said Josh Worcester, among the laid-off workers.

The closure of the call center at the Duluth Technology Village on May 16 came four years after AT&T purchased Cellular One. Most of the employees had stayed on to staff the AT&T Mobility collection call center, at least long enough to get incentive-to-stay bonuses.


But the more than 300 employees who once worked for Cellular One dwindled to about 70 under AT&T, through departures, attrition and schedule changes, said Worcester, who worked eight years for the two companies.

The laid-off workers would have been left reeling, had they not gotten help and guidance from the Northeast Minnesota Office of Job Training before the call center even closed. The effort became a project funded with a $250,800 grant from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

"The company was really nice about us getting in there, to serve the folks who potentially would be losing their jobs," said Randy Back, a career counselor for the job training office. "Virtually everyone received at least core services from us. We caught every worker in that facility through creative job search workshops, intensive coaching or retooling their skills."

That assistance, which is continuing, includes developing resumes, assessing skills and job prospects, improving interview skills and covering tuition costs for up to two years of occupational training or to finish college. It might even include help coping with job loss, getting proper interview clothes and covering child care costs while looking for work.

"We try to get in there and start service as soon as possible," said Michelle Ufford of the job training office. "The longer people are off their job, they tend to become disconnected. We help them get back in,

usually at a higher wage."

Similar services are available to anyone laid off. But when more than 50 workers are laid off at one time, it can become a project with workshops, labs and other help set up just for these laid-off workers. Grants are available to pay for these projects.

For Worcester, 35, of rural Duluth, the layoff has turned into something



He had been thinking about going back to school, and the layoff fired him up to do it. As his counselor, Back helped Worcester assess his skills and narrow his list of potential career fields. Now Worcester is enrolled in a two-year program in electrical utility technology at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet, with his tuition, books and some mileage costs paid for.

He has been proactive, seeking out recruiters from utility companies like

Minnesota Power to determine his chances of getting a job when he's finished.

"I'm going out and doing what I need to do," Worcester said.

His path has been similar to that of his wife, Kristi, who worked for a Duluth call center that was sold then closed in 2006, laying off her and about 100 of her co-workers.

She, too, received job counseling from Back at the Office of Job Training. Through its help for dislocated workers, she went through medical assistant training with costs covered. At her own expense, she went on to become a respiratory therapist and now works for a Duluth hospital.

Most of the laid-off AT&T Mobility workers had worked there four to 10 years. They ranged in age from their early 20s to 60s, earning $11 to $16 per hour for handling calls from customers whose service had been shut off. Team managers like Worcester and other supervisors earned $35,000 to $40,000 a year, he said. Many had some college or other higher education.


"It was a high functioning team, a well- educated work force that any employer in this region is lucky to have," Back said.

A few accepted the company's offer to transfer to other call centers in Bloomington, Minn., or in Texas. Some will go into the same line of work for other companies. But most are interested in retraining and have skills that can dovetail into another industry, Ufford said.

"Working with us, they learn to get what they want, rather than just falling into a job," she said. "They have a stronger sense of confidence."

So far, Ufford and Back say the project is successful, with about one-third landing jobs, one-third going back to school and one-third seeking work.

"They've made some pretty solid connections in the work world," Back said.

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