Up From Outsourcing

IT workers and employers share responsibility for the future.

Many and varied were the responses to my last two columns on outsourcing. Many were the readers who wished that I might experience firsthand the agony of seeing my job head across the ocean. Varied were the complaints of those who have seen their skills replicated overseas—complaints about the nature of the companies for which they worked, the lack of government support programs, and the hollow sound of free-trade advocacy.

Without a doubt, the issue of offshore outsourcing has become the major technology topic of this election year. The issues of free trade, corporate governance and technology skills have all come to center on the flight of U.S. jobs overseas.

In retrospect, its obvious that the upper-level technology jobs that are now in jeopardy are only the latest step in the long march of technology across borders.

Basic electronic component manufacturing moved overseas long ago. It was followed by electronic assembly and then, thanks to high-speed connections, call-center help applications. Upper-level software development performed by skilled engineers merely built on what had gone before.

In many ways, the readers responding to me via e-mail were correct. A substantial chunk complained that while their jobs have left these shores, those of upper management have not.

"From the people I have seen outsourced, very few had upper management or c-level positions. When a company states it is controlling costs by offshoring, what it is really stating is that jobs need to be offshored if the company is to maintain the level of perks the executives have come to expect," wrote J.B. (Im keeping the names of my correspondents anonymous and editing their missives for length.)

So far, the vendors most vocal in their support of outsourcing have been quiet about proposals to support those workers whose jobs have been lost. Thats a mistake.

In some ways, however, the e-mailers were wrong. For a foreign country to spend money to target and build a skill set among its people is not competing unfairly—its simply good planning. The United States has for years sought, with mixed results, to encourage education and training in technology skills. Expressing blind national chauvinism is neither morally nor socially an acceptable response to outsourcing.

The best responses were from individuals and organizations trying to identify the skill sets, policies and resources required to respond to the outsourcing issue. Politicians have done little to offer suggestions for the future. Academics have been much divided on the issue. Vendors have done little to balance the bottom-line benefits of a worldwide marketplace for skills with the needs of employees who have made those vendors the global competitors they have become.

"The lesson for todays students and displaced workers is to train for a consumer-facing occupation where there are natural barriers to moving the work outside the United States," stated one e-mailer.

One other e-mailer suggested developing offshore contracts with countries bordering the United States to encourage some of those lost dollars to return. Others noted the formation of new organizations that are seeking to provide a collective voice to those currently affected or fearful of seeing their livelihoods in jeopardy.

In one of the more thoughtful responses, one writer provided the following scenario: "Somewhere, a balance will be met, and folks who are more than just heads-down coders will still have the skills needed for successful IT careers. I just hope that the industry does not permanently lose truly skilled IS personnel in the turmoil.

"Many of these people have focused on developing the skills encouraged by the management of their companies, with the assurance that being specialized will increase their value to the company. Now, management is changing its tune, and people who behaved as loyal employees, doing what was best for the company, are now left swinging in the wind."

Editor in Chief Eric Lundquists e-mail address is eric_lundquist@ziffdavis.com.