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Outsourcing comes home

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Home-based workers enjoy having greater control, too. Like other agents, Libby sets her own hours. "I get to tell Alpine when I want to work," she says. She typically chooses a morning shift and logs 15 to 20 hours a week, answering calls for a national florist, a financial-services company, an upscale clothing catalog, and an office-supply firm, among others. Her former job as a clinical services director involved a 25-minute commute each way.

Employers of these agents also find advantages: They can draw from a national pool of applicants and, in a 24/7 economy, staff phones around the clock.

When Mr. Whipple ran large call centers, he had only a limited area to draw from. "I got kids out of high school who had never had a job before," he says. "Now I have a nationwide reach. I can choose people who have some relevant experience. My clients get a better quality of agent than if I'm in a small town in the Midwest with a 20-mile radius."

Alpine Access, which employs 7,500 people, received more than 200,000 applications in the past 12 months, Mr. Carrington says. The average age of his workers is 41, and 80 percent have some form of college education. About 10 percent hold an advanced degree.

"They bring 10 to 15 years of work and experience in the particular industry they're serving," says Carrington. For a sportswear company, for example, he looks for people who studied fashion merchandising in college or worked for a clothing store. "They can help make products [in catalogs] come to life as they talk about fabrics and durability."

One company, Home-Base USA, specializes in hiring military spouses, enabling them to keep a job wherever military postings take them.

Airlines such as Southwest and Jet Blue both use many work-at-home mothers, Mr. Brown says. Carrington employs people with disabilities, too.

Depending on the company, agents are paid by the minute, the call, or the transaction. "Agents starting out can expect to probably make $7 to $9 an hour," Whipple says. "I have agents who are invoicing $15 to $20 an hour."

Agents must have a quiet workplace, away from distractions: no children's voices, no dogs barking, no doorbells.

Being able to answer a phone is not the only qualification, says Christine Durst, CEO of Staffcentrix. "You need high-speed Internet, DSL or cable, great computer skills, a separate phone line, and a pleasant phone voice. Nobody wants to talk to Sponge Bob."

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