Home / Technology / How Apple Empowers, and Employs, the American Working Class

How Apple Empowers, and Employs, the American Working Class

At Apple’s sparkling new complex in northwest Austin, workers who are spread throughout seven limestone-and-glass buildings field about 8,000 customer tech-support calls a day, manage the company’s vast network of suppliers and figure out how to move around millions of iPhones a week to ensure they get into the hands of customers when they want them.

Employees here help run Apple’s iTunes music and app stores, handle the billions of dollars going in and out of the company’s American operations and continuously update the Maps software that is integral to iPhones and iPads. At another Austin location, about 500 engineers work on the chips that will run the next round of Apple’s products.

The Austin campus — the company’s largest outside its headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. — offers plenty of perks, too. When employees are not working, they can lounge on chairs shaded from the Texas sun, dine at a two-story cafeteria that serves an abundance of food options, including barbecued ribs and banana-bread gelato, and visit a full-service medical clinic, which includes dentists, acupuncturists and a robot-assisted pharmacy.

Although contractors at the Austin technical support call center earn as little as $ 14.50 an hour, equivalent to about $ 30,000 a year, many of them become permanent staff members, which means better pay, after the typical one-year contract is up. Experienced call center employees earn around $ 45,000 a year, plus generous benefits and small annual stock grants. Pay is even higher for more senior advisers and managers. Apple says that, excluding benefits and stock compensation, the average salary of its Austin employees, including management, is $ 77,000 a year.

Apple declined to discuss its future expansion plans in Austin and in the United States.

“Apple has created over two million jobs in the United States since the introduction of the iPhone nine years ago, including explosive growth in iOS developers, thousands of new supplier and manufacturing partners, and a 400 percent increase in our employee teams,” the company said in a statement. “We made the unique decision to keep and expand our contact centers for customers in the Americas in the United States, and Austin is home to many of those employees. We plan to continue to invest and grow across the U.S.”

Last week, a reporter and photographer visited the Austin campus and interviewed more than a dozen workers, from managers to a prep cook on the kitchen staff. Apple’s public relations staff monitored some of the conversations, but others were unsupervised.

Genny Lopez, who has a two-year associate’s degree and used to work as a bartender, joined Apple as a contractor handling tech support calls. She is now on staff, troubleshooting difficult customer problems. “You don’t need a crazy technical background to do this job,” Ms. Lopez said. “A lot of the training is getting really good at talking to people.”

Apple prides itself on providing top-notch phone service in 26 languages — 12 are spoken at the Texas call center alone — and the people who handle the calls are expected to follow up on any problem that cannot be quickly resolved. During the recent visit, Stephanie Dumareille, a senior adviser on iOS issues who is fluent in English and Spanish, patiently answered questions from a customer who was worried about saving her résumé online and did not know whether she was using a Windows or a Mac computer.

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Alan Marquis, who works on integrating Apple’s suppliers into the company’s production systems. Credit Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

Employees say that Apple encourages them to move within and across teams, and the company is instituting a formal program to allow workers to try a completely different role for six months to see it if suits them and the company. Brisa Carillo, who started out in the call center fresh out of college five years ago, now handles international payroll matters and is studying for her M.B.A. so she can move up the ranks of the finance department within Apple.

The region’s economy has deep roots in technology and is home to a number of big tech employers, most notably Dell. Apple’s influence in the area extends beyond the people on its direct payroll. It has 350 suppliers in Texas alone.

And about 3,400 construction workers helped build the Austin campus. Apple ensured that they all got paid at least $ 12 an hour. It also provided workers’ compensation insurance and safety training, and it allowed the monitoring of conditions by an outside labor group, the Workers Defense Project, which has been trying to improve safety and pay in Texas construction.

“There is a high road, and Apple followed that path,” said Bo Delp, director of the Better Builder program at the Workers Defense Project. “It sent a pretty strong message to others in Austin.”

A mile from its Austin campus, Apple is involved in manufacturing, through Flex, a global contract manufacturer. Flex assembles Apple’s Mac Pro desktop computers to meet the exact requirements of customers, who can choose among more than 4,000 combinations of features and hardware.

Flex added about 2,000 jobs for the Apple project. Although Apple and Flex declined to discuss details of their arrangement, the assembly jobs start at $ 11 an hour and pay an average of about $ 30,000 a year, according to testimony by Flex officials in 2014, when they sought government aid for the expansion.

Apple could in theory build more products in the United States through contractors like Flex. But the company and industrial experts say that would be very difficult and could easily add $ 100 to the final cost of an iPhone. China has built a whole ecosystem of suppliers for nearly every electronic part imaginable. Vast pools of trained labor make it easy to quickly scale production up or down to meet demand.

Larger products, or ones that require more customizing, such as PCs, make more sense to build close to the final customer.

“It’s easy to ship a phone, and it’s harder to ship a computer,” said Andy Tsay, a professor at Santa Clara University who has studied global manufacturing patterns. “And it’s harder still for cars and refrigerators.”

Over time, the value of Apple’s business is shifting away from hardware like the iPhone and into software such as apps and services like Apple Music, Mr. Tsay said. And those jobs can be much better for workers. “There are fewer industrial accidents working in a call center,” he said. “There is probably more gender equity. And it’s probably better for customers, too.”

Alan Marquis, a former Army officer who spent a couple of years streamlining processes on a manufacturer’s assembly line before joining Apple, now manages part of the complex software that integrates Apple’s suppliers into the company’s production systems. “Here, there’s a lot more openness and creativity,” he said. “In manufacturing, it’s a lot more widgets dropping off the line.”

Mayor Steve Adler of Austin, a Democrat, does not sweat the details of the jobs companies create in his city. He is more concerned that the work pays enough — at least $ 20 an hour — to support the city’s middle class, which is being squeezed by rising home prices.

Some of the new jobs, like those at the Austin chip factory owned by Samsung, Apple’s biggest rival in the smartphone business, will be in manufacturing. Others, like the ones Apple brings, will be in services. “The best kind of jobs are those that allow someone to continue to grow and climb the ladder,” Mr. Adler said.

Asked about Apple’s lack of manufacturing in the United States, Ms. Lopez said: “The product that Apple builds here is us.”

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