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Online Extra: Answering the Call in Manila

Things are just starting to warm up at the Manila offices of C3HTMT call center at 11 p.m. Twentysomething men and women arrive armed with cappuccinos or Cokes to help them get through the long night. They will soon be fielding queries about everything from Kitty Litter to credit cards to camera phones from U.S. customers as many as 16 time zones away -- hence the need to show up for work during the graveyard shift and the caffeine fix.

C3HTMT has grown from 700 employees three years ago to 2,000 today. In fact, it has outgrown its location in East Wood City Cyberpark in a Manila suburb and is moving to new premises that will allow it to accommodate 50% more staff. It's one of dozens of call centers that have sprung up in the Philippines in the past few years in an industry that now employs more than 70,000 people and is one of the fastest growing sectors in the Philippine economy.

It has also become one of the most attractive jobs for fresh college grads who have little problem with the graveyard shift. Unlike the U.S., where call center jobs have a stigma of being low-paid, tedious, and dead-end, in the Philippines call centers are seen as a gateway to exciting careers.

SERIOUS MONEY. Take 27-year-old Mary Jane Calubaquib. Five years ago she graduated from the prestigious private university Ateneo of Manila with a degree in political science. But her poor results on the foreign service exam nixed her plans to become a diplomat, so she took a job answering phones for Source One (which was subsequently bought by HTMT, an Indian outfit) as a call agent until she figured out what she really wanted to do.

But Calubaquib's bosses quickly discovered she had an aptitude for settling customer queries quickly. Within six months she'd been promoted to a team leader, which gave her responsibility for looking after 12 agents. Another six months brought another promotion, this time to a shift manager overseeing nearly 100 agents.

A year later she became operations manager -- the job she holds now that enables her to pull down about $1,800 a month, a small fortune in a country where one-third of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. Calubaquib has saved enough to buy herself a shiny new grey Toyota Fortuna SUV, which cost $24,000.

She says she earns more than many of her classmates who went on to law school. What's more, people don't look at her funny anymore when she tells them what she does for a living. "When I started, people were saying: 'Why are you working as an agent, why don't you quit your job?' Now my friends are asking me if I have jobs [for them]." Starting salaries for college grads are from $210 to $300 per month for a 40-hour-a-week job.

FAMILIAR VOICES. Another appeal of C3HTMT is the relaxed atmosphere. There's no dress code apart from a ban on shorts and sandals, and the place feels more like a college all-night study center than a sweatshop. There's a canteen that serves up hot Filipino food, computer terminals where people can play video games on their break -- Counterstrike and NBA are the current favorites -- and there's a punching bag and a fusbol table as well as big, comfy couches to sprawl on.

It's all part of the company effort to attract and retain employees. Turnover is about 70% a year, compared with the 120% to 150% annual rate in the U.S., but it's a major challenge, says COO Bryce Hayes. He recently implemented an employee referral program where each successful hire earns the referee a 20% monthly salary bonus.

Inevitably, the question arises: How do Filipinos stack up against the Indians? As a former U.S. colony, the Philippines has strong cultural affinities with Americans, and Filipinos have a knack for mimicking North American accents -- a big selling point for clients. "One of the first question we get asked [from callers] right off the bat, is, 'Are you in India?'" says Hayes. The way things are growing in the Philippines, more and more callers are going to be hearing the answer "No." By Frederik Balfour in Manila

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