‘Training My Replacement’: Inside a Call Center Worker’s Battle With A.I.

“This A.I. stuff is getting really crazy.”

The voices of Charlamagne tha God, host of the nationally syndicated radio show “The Breakfast Club,” and his guests Mandii B and WeezyWTF filled Ylonda Sherrod’s car as she sped down Interstate 10 in Mississippi during her daily commute. Her favorite radio show was discussing artificial intelligence, specifically an A.I.-generated sample of Biggie.

“Sonically, it sounds cool,” Charlamagne tha God said. “But it lacks soul.”

WeezyWTF replied: “I’ve had people ask me like, ‘Oh, would you replace people that work for you with A.I.?’ I’m like, ‘No, dude.’”

Ms. Sherrod nodded along emphatically, as she drove past low-slung brick homes and strip malls dotted with Waffle Houses. She arrived at the AT&T call center where she works, feeling unsettled. She played the radio exchange about A.I. for a colleague.

“Yeah, that’s crazy,” Ms. Sherrod’s friend replied. “What do you think about us?”

Like so many millions of American workers, across so many thousands of workplaces, the roughly 230 customer service representatives at AT&T’s call center in Ocean Springs, Miss., watched artificial intelligence arrive over the past year both rapidly and assuredly, like a new manager settling in and kicking up its feet.

Suddenly, the customer service workers weren’t taking their own notes during calls with customers. Instead, an A.I. tool generated a transcript, which their managers could later consult. A.I. technology was providing suggestions of what to tell customers. Customers were also spending time on phone lines with automated systems, which solved simple questions and passed on the complicated ones to human representatives.

Ms. Sherrod, 38, who exudes quiet confidence at 5-foot-11, regarded the new technology with a combination of irritation and fear. “I always had a question in the back of my mind,” she said. “Am I training my replacement?”

Ms. Sherrod, a vice president of the call center’s local union chapter, part of the Communications Workers of America, started asking AT&T managers questions. “If we don’t talk about this, it could jeopardize my family,” she said. “Will I be jobless?”

In recent months, the A.I. chatbot ChatGPT has made its way into courtrooms, classrooms, hospitals and everywhere in between. With it has come speculation about A.I.’s impact on jobs. To many people, A.I. feels like a ticking time bomb, sure to explode their work. But to some, like Ms. Sherrod, the threat of A.I. isn’t abstract. They can already feel its effects.

When automation swallows up jobs, it often comes for customer service roles first, which make up about three million jobs in America. Automation tends to overtake tasks that repeat themselves; customer service, already a major site for outsourcing of jobs abroad, can be a prime candidate.

A majority of U.S. call center workers surveyed this year reported that their employers were automating some of their work, according to a 2,000-person survey from researchers at Cornell. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they felt it was somewhat or very likely that increased use of bots would lead to layoffs within the next two years.

Technology executives point out that fears of automation are centuries old — stretching back to the Luddites, who smashed and burned textile machines — but have historically been undercut by a reality in which automation creates more jobs than it eliminates.

But that job creation happens gradually. The new jobs that technology creates, like engineering roles, often demand complex skills. That can create a gap for workers like Ms. Sherrod, who found what seemed like a golden ticket at AT&T: a job that pays $21.87 an hour and up to $3,000 in commissions a month, she said, and provides health care and five weeks of vacation — all without the requirement of a college degree. (Less than 5 percent of AT&T’s roles require a college education.)

Customer service, to Ms. Sherrod, meant that someone like her — a young Black woman raised by her grandmother in small-town Mississippi — could make “a really good living.”

“We’re breaking generational curses,” Ms. Sherrod said. “That’s for sure.”

In Ms. Sherrod’s childhood home, a one-story, brick A-frame in Pascagoula, money was tight. Her mother died when she was 5. Her grandmother, who took her in, didn’t work, but Ms. Sherrod remembers getting food stamps to take to the corner bakery whenever the family could spare them. Ms. Sherrod cries recalling how Christmas used to be. The family had a plastic tree and tried to make it festive with ornaments, but there was typically no money for presents.

To students at Pascagoula High School, she recalled, job opportunities seemed limited. Many went to Ingalls Shipbuilding, a shipyard where work meant blistering days under the Mississippi sun. Others went to the local Chevron refinery.

“It felt like I was going to always have to do hard labor in order to make a living,” Ms. Sherrod said. “It seemed like my lifestyle would never be something with ease, something I enjoyed.”

When Ms. Sherrod was 16, she worked at KFC, making $6.50 an hour. After graduating from high school, and dropping out of community college, she moved to Biloxi, Miss., to work as a maid at IP Casino, a 32-story hotel, where her sister still works.

Within months of working at the casino, Ms. Sherrod felt the toll of the job on her body. Her knees ached, and her back thrummed with pain. She had to clean at least 16 rooms a day, fishing hair out of bathroom drains and rolling up dirty sheets.

When a friend told her about the jobs at AT&T, the opportunity seemed, to Ms. Sherrod, impossibly good. The call center was air-conditioned. She could sit all day and rest her knees. She took the call center’s application test twice, and on her second time she got an offer, in 2006, starting out making $9.41 an hour, up from around $7.75 at the casino.

“That $9 meant so much to me,” she recalled.

So did AT&T, a place where she kept growing more comfortable: “Out of 17 years, my check hasn’t ever been wrong,” she said. “AT&T, by far, is the best job in the area.”

This spring, lawmakers in Washington hauled forward the makers of A.I. tools to begin discussing the risks posed by the products they’ve unleashed.

“Let me ask you what your biggest nightmare is,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, asked OpenAI’s chief executive, Sam Altman, after sharing that his own greatest fear was job loss.

“There will be an impact on jobs,” said Mr. Altman, whose company developed ChatGPT.

That reality has already become clear. The British telecommunications company BT Group announced in May that it would cut up to 55,000 jobs by 2030 as it increasingly relied on A.I. The chief executive of IBM said A.I. would affect certain clerical jobs in the company, eliminating the need for up to 30 percent of some roles, while creating new ones.

AT&T has begun integrating A.I. into many parts of its customer service work, including routing customers to agents, offering suggestions for technical solutions during customer calls and producing transcripts.

The company said all of these uses were intended to create a better experience for customers and workers. “We’re really trying to focus on using A.I. to augment and assist our employees,” said Nicole Rafferty, who leads AT&T’s customer care operation and works with staff members nationwide.

“We’re always going to need in-person engagement to solve those complex customer situations,” Ms. Rafferty added. “That’s why we’re so focused on building A.I. that supports our employees.”

Economists studying A.I. have argued that it most likely won’t prompt sudden widespread layoffs. Instead, it could gradually eliminate the need for humans to do certain tasks — and make the remaining work more challenging.

“The tasks left to call center workers are the most complex ones, and customers are frustrated,” said Virginia Doellgast, a professor at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell.

Ms. Sherrod has always enjoyed getting to know her customers. She said she took about 20 calls a day, from 9:30 to 6:30. While she’s resolving technical issues, she listens to why people are calling in, and she hears from customers who just bought new homes, were married or lost family members.

“It’s sort of like you’re a therapist,” she said. “They tell you their life stories.”

She is already finding her job growing more challenging with A.I. The automated technology has a hard time understanding Ms. Sherrod’s drawl, she said, so the transcripts from her calls are full of mistakes. Once the technology is no longer in a pilot phase, she won’t be able to make corrections. (AT&T said it was refining the A.I. products it used to prevent these kinds of errors.)

It seems likely, to Ms. Sherrod, that at some point as the work gets more efficient, the company won’t need quite as many humans answering calls in its centers.

Ms. Sherrod wonders, too: Doesn’t the company trust her? For two consecutive years, she won AT&T’s Summit Award, placing her in the top 3 percent of the company’s customer service representatives nationally. Her name was projected on the call center’s wall.

“They gave everyone a little gift bag with a trophy,” Ms. Sherrod recalled. “That meant a lot to me.”

As companies like AT&T embrace A.I., experts are floating proposals meant to protect workers. There’s the possibility of training programs helping people make the transition to new jobs, or a displacement tax levied on employers when a worker’s job is automated but the person is not retrained.

Labor unions are wading into these battles. In Hollywood, the unions representing actors and television writers have fought to limit the use of A.I. in script writing and production.

Just 6 percent of the country’s private-sector workers are represented by unions. Ms. Sherrod is one, and she has begun fighting her company for more information about its A.I. plans, sitting in her union hall nine miles from the call center, where she works under a Norman Rockwell painting of a wireline technician.

For years, Ms. Sherrod’s demands on behalf of the union have been rote. As a steward, she typically asked the company to reduce penalties for colleagues who got in trouble.

But for the first time, this summer, she feels that she is taking up an issue that will affect workers beyond AT&T. She recently asked her union to establish a task force focused on A.I.

In late May, Ms. Sherrod was invited by the Communications Workers of America to travel to Washington, where she and dozens of other workers met with the White House’s Office of Public Engagement to share their experience with A.I.

A warehouse worker described being monitored with A.I. that tracked how speedily he moved packages, creating pressure for him to skip breaks. A delivery driver said automated surveillance technologies were being used to monitor workers and look for potential disciplinary actions, even though their records weren’t reliable. Ms. Sherrod described how the A.I. in her call center created inaccurate summaries of her work.

Her son, Malik, was astonished to hear that his mother was headed to the White House. “When my dad told me about it, at first I said, ‘You’re lying,’” he said with a laugh.

Ms. Sherrod sometimes feels that her life presents an argument for a type of job that one day might no longer exist.

With her pay and commissions, she has been able to buy a home. She lives on a sunny street full of families, some of whom work in fields like nursing and accounting. She is down the road from a softball field and playground. On the weekends, her neighbors gather for cookouts. The adults eat snowballs, while the children play basketball and set up splash pads.

Ms. Sherrod takes pride in buying Malik anything he asks for. She wants to give him the childhood she never had.

“Call center work — it’s life-changing,” she said. “Look at my life. Will all that be taken away from me?”

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