Call centres under threat from Net

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THOUSANDS of jobs at telephone call centres could be under threat from the Internet and interactive television, according to a warning today.

Growth in sales through the worldwide web and through digital TV may undermine the viability of many call centres, currently employing about 200,000 people in Britain, some experts believe.

Business Strategies, the economic consultancy, today said it had launched a six-month inquiry into the impact on the Internet on call centre jobs. Clare Reid, managing economist at Business Strategies, said: "Long term, the growth of the Internet and digital TV has the potential to make computer telephonists redundant. No longer will it be necessary to speak to someone to book a holiday or buy clothes."

Call centres are especially concentrated in post-industrial areas which had a high supply of labour after previous recessions. A wave of redundancies would hit vulnerable areas, such as Teesside, Merseyside and Yorkshire, that are still suffering from the decline of manufacturing industries. Within these areas, towns and cities such as Leeds, have developed as centres of excellence.

"The problem is that call centres do not equip people, once made redundant with skills, to work in other occupations," Ms Reid said. "The results could be high levels of unemployment in those areas that have become call centre magnets."

According to recent estimates, there are 7,000 call centres in the UK, employing a 200,000 computer telephonists, which could rise to over 250,000 by next year. Globally it is reckoned that 90 million people will be "surfing the net" by 2010, which will inevitably lead to changing patterns of consumption.