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First Card conducts grand opening

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by Karen E. Culp

SBJ Staff

First Card held its official grand opening in Springfield March 5. The First Card building, which now houses 150 employees, can hold up to 750, said Patricia Laxton, first vice president and manager of the Springfield center.

The call center, which is to receive calls from First Card customers and provide assistance to those cardholders, such as replacing lost cards and answering questions about billing statements, will gain another 60 employees in May and another 60 in June, taking it up to roughly 250 employees by June or July, Laxton said. The remaining 500 of the 750 employees the building can hold would be added incrementally as needed.

"To get to that 750 figure, we'll be looking at what our needs are and evaluating that as we go," Laxton said.

When First Card made its announcement that it would locate a call center in Springfield, it promised to bring 1,500 jobs to the area. About half of those employees would have to go into a new building, and the development of that is part of the Springfield center's second phase. That center will be added as those employees are needed, Laxton said.

Of the employees at the Springfield center now, about 130 are from the Springfield area; the other 20 are from other First Card locations and are supervisors, administrators and trainers. Interest in jobs at the center among Springfieldians has been great, Laxton said. "We've had several hundred applicants."

When the Springfield center reaches 750 employees, the number of available jobs is not likely to dramatically affect Springfield's already low unemployment rate, said Dr. Joe Bell, director of the Center for Economic Research at Southwest Missouri State University.

"That (750 jobs) still only represents about one-half of 1 percent of the labor force in Springfield. There are about 162,000 people working in the Springfield area," Bell said.

In December, the Springfield Metropolitan Statistical Area (which includes Greene, Christian and Webster counties) had unemployment of 3.1 percent. Preliminary numbers for January show the rate at 3.7 percent, said Richard Kreiser, programs supervisor for the Missouri Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Kreiser and Bell agreed that rate means full employment, but Bell added, "there are still 5,000 people out there out of work; they're real, you can count them."

The addition of First Card to Springfield is more likely to have an effect on wages and employment conditions in the area, rather than on the unemployment rate itself, Bell said.

"These jobs pay well for that type of job. What you are likely to see is an upward pressure on wages," Bell said.

The First Card jobs pay between $7 and $9 an hour, Laxton said. Kreiser agreed that some wage pressure would come, but added that migration into Springfield from the immediate outlying areas could also be a result. The average hourly wage for a service job in Springfield is $7.65 right now, though, right at what First Card is offering, Kreiser said.

"You also have to consider that 'service' includes everything from automotive to some jobs in the medical field. That takes in a pretty wide breadth of salaries," Kreiser said.

Though Springfield's unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the state, it is not the lowest. Bell said Columbia has 1.6 percent unemployment, and areas in the northwest corner of the state, near the Nebraska line, have well under 3 percent, reflecting the Nebraska state average. Missouri's state unemployment rate is 4.5 percent, Kreiser said.

David Knight, the city's economic development coordinator, said the First Card jobs could attract more "nontraditional employees" into the work force.

"I think these jobs are going to appeal to a lot of people who have previously not been part of the workplace," Knight said.

In terms of what jobs Springfield may be losing in manufacturing or in other sectors, the market replenishes itself, said Bill Fashing, vice president of economic development at the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce.

"In 1992, when Zenith left, there were over 20,000 employees in manufacturing. Now, there are 23,700," Fashing said.

Losing those approximately 3,200 jobs in manufacturing may have caused a little lost ground at the time, but the market quickly replenished itself, Fashing said.

"We've had a significant increase in the number of people employed in that sector, despite the loss of Zenith," he said.

Although the First Card jobs, and others like them, don't pay what manufacturing jobs do, the Chamber has still targeted those "back office" businesses as bringing needed jobs to the area.

Patty Penny, president of Penmac Personnel, said there are a lot more jobs than people to fill them in this market.

"First Card is a wonderful addition to our city, but it gets down to how are we going to fill those jobs," Penny said.

Penny added that many of the jobs that are available are skilled jobs, and getting many of the available workers up to the appropriate level of skill is difficult.

"We're tapping into a market now of people who don't want to work," Penny said.

Laxton said the interest in jobs at First Card of Springfield has been great, citing hundreds of applicants for the jobs. The company has its own internal training component, and employees are essentially in training for the first six months of their employment. The employees take a six-week course before they are on the phones, and once they begin receiving calls, they are in a post-training situation for about four months, Laxton said.

"We have received a great deal of people walking in to fill out applications every day. We're very excited about the response we've had," Laxton said.

INSET CAPTION:

'I think these jobs are going to appeal to a lot of people who have previously not been part of the workplace.'

David Knight

City of Springfield[[In-content Ad]]

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