As customers' unpaid bills pile up, the collection industry is expected to grow at a faster-than-average rate, creating stable career opportunities with agencies.

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When Shakespeare penned “Hamlet” he tried to warn us: “Neither a borrower, nor a lender be.”

Lucky thing for bill collectors that many folks ignore that advice.

Ask those in the finance field and they’ll attest: increased household debt — and lenders’ attempts to recoup that money — is what’s driving the jobs in account collections.

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From banks and retailers to health-care and cellular phone service providers, customers’ unpaid bills are mounting. Various sources show that two out of every five American households spend more than they earn each year and that the average family non-mortgage debt in this country is about $14,500.

Arranging payments from customers with these overdue accounts and recovering that money for lenders is the task for the nation’s more than 413,000 bill collectors — a field expected to grow faster than average through 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The collection industry claims its work saves American households an average of $331 each year in prices that businesses would have otherwise raised to cover bad debt losses.


For career information




Trade association:
ACA — formerly the American Collectors Association www.acainternational.org or 952-926-6547.


Agencies:
There are 5,215 collection agencies in the U.S.; the average agency employed 19 collectors and 10 other full-time staff members in 2003.


Workers:
The agencies employed 127,605 people in 2002 — an increase of 51 percent employed in 1997.


Collections:
Collectors recouped about $16.5 billion in 2003 — an amount that tripled since 1993.

Source: ACA International

Suzanne Monson


Debts recovered by collectors for the federal government alone garnered some $546.8 million in 2003, according to the now-international ACA, formerly the American Collectors Association.

The latest state and local figures available show some 2,320 collectors work for lenders or — more frequently — agencies hired by lenders. In the Seattle area, there are about 81 such employers.

For these collectors, it’s a job in finance that requires a high-school diploma, but no college degree. Some math, keyboarding and strong clerical and organizational skills are required. Professional communication skills are important, too. Some states require licensing; Washington does not.

“If there’s a myth about this work, it’s probably the impression that it’s a bunch of leg breakers, knocking down your door to collect,” says Kevin Underwood, president of the Washington Collectors Association, the state’s ACA chapter.

“In reality, it’s a profession that has moved into the 21st century and we’re on the leading edge of technology,” says Underwood, whose AllianceOne Receivables Management in Gig Harbor, employs 125 workers, including data entry and information technology specialists.

Today’s accounts collectors spend their workdays in offices mailing or calling debtors to arrange payment plans, and in some cases, offer recommendations for how to pay the bills.

A bit of detective work can also be required for “skip tracing” — cases that involve debtors who have moved without a forwarding address or phone number.

“Early in their careers, a lot of new collectors might think they need to intimidate people into getting them to pay their bills,” says collector Chris Jones. “But I’ve found it’s a lot easier to attract bees with honey, so I just state what I’m calling for and listen to them.

JAMES BRANAMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Chris Jones says “the best part of the job is when you know you’ve helped somebody out of a situation they felt like they couldn’t get out of … they feel like the weight of the world has been lifted off their shoulders.”

“Over the years, I’ve developed a trained ear,” says Jones, who started in a local agency 11 years ago. Several awards, many bonuses and 10 years later, he opened his own office, Accelerated Collections Service, in Kent.

“I would say more than half the people I work with really, really know they owe the money and feel bad,” he says. “The best part of the job is when you know you’ve helped somebody out of a situation they probably felt like they couldn’t get out of by themselves.

“When you’ve helped someone deal with huge amounts of debt — got them to refinance or found a way to lower their payment — they feel like the weight of the world has been lifted off their shoulders,” says Jones. “Anytime you can help somebody do the right thing, it’s a good day.”

There are also days when a thick skin comes in handy.

Hostile and rude debtors “don’t understand that we’re just trying to do our job, and treating us like a piece of dirt isn’t going to make it any better,” Jones says.

“We’re more likely to help you if you take the time to treat us with respect. But there is still a stigma out there, and I’ve had people who say ‘You’re a bum’ or ‘You’re too stupid to get another job.’ I get a kick out of that, especially when I’m preparing an account for legal action, because if you take it as a serious profession, it can be very rewarding.”

Many positions are paid on combined hourly and commission wages. Average commission in the country is about 12 percent. The average accounts collector earns about $30,553 annually, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In Seattle, the average annual salary is $32,828. Most full-time workers receive health-care and other benefits. Bonuses, often tied to cases collectors can successfully close, also are available.

Jones, who is proud of the $80,000 he said he earned last year, urges potential collectors to understand the sometimes complicated salary vs. commission wage formulas that some agencies offer. He also cautions workers from jumping at the first agency that offers a job, calling some offices “sweatshops.”

Though 2002 U.S. Census Bureau figures show about one in five collectors work for collections agencies, that figure is expected to grow as jobs shift in that direction and away from other employers, including banks, retailers, hospitals and other lending and credit organizations.

“At the state level, our employment numbers have risen, in part because businesses are more inclined to outsource this work,” says Underwood. “Industries that never used agencies before” are now turning to collections agency, he adds. His company now has an office at the King County Courthouse.

“One thing people should know about this work: it’s virtually recession-proof,” says Underwood. “When times are bad, there’s growth. Even when times are good and there’s less bad debt, there are jobs. Debts are just easier to collect. It’s very stable employment.