A CIO at a famous Fortune 100 manufacturer has a recurring nightmare: As he continues to lay off American IT workers and move their jobs offshore to places such as India, never to return, American public opinion suddenly swings violently against globalization. He and his company are demonized, and Americans boycott his company's products. "Public perception isn't always accurate, but it counts for a lot of things," he says, after insisting on anonymity. "We don't want a situation where the public sees us as a malevolent force and takes it out on our products."
Other CIOs are becoming similarly cautious about publically endorsing offshore outsourcing. Of the dozen CIOs contacted for this article, only two agreed to talk completely on the record. Though all believe that the offshore outsourcing trend will continue, some are privately worrying about carrying out the inevitable in a sick economy and wondering if it isn't happening too quickly.
It's not hard to find reasons for CIOs to worry. "Do you want to do business with companies that take away jobs for US citizens by outsourcing work to foreign countries?" asks The Organisation for the Rights of American Workers (Toraw), a group of displaced, angry American workers laid off by Connecticut insurance and financial services companies. In June 2002, dozens from Toraw and similar groups from across the country held a two-day demonstration outside the Strategic Outsourcing Conference at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City. The same month, other laid-off workers demonstrated outside an outsourcing conference at the Hynes Convention Centre in Boston.
Organised labour protests at IT conferences in the United States? Even two years ago the idea would have seemed absurd. But as IT employees see many of their jobs moving overseas in a bad economy, opposition to globalization in the United States, hidden during the good economic times of the '90s, could reemerge more strongly than ever. IT companies--such as Accenture , IBM Global Services, Microsoft and Oracle — and mainstream Fortune 500 companies--such as American Express , Citibank NA, Bank of America , DaimlerChrysler , General Electric , Procter & Gamble , Prudential and United Technologies Inc.--are outsourcing to offshore IT companies or expanding their own development centers out of the country.
Some CIOs, like Joe Drouin of TRW , have experienced backlash against outsourcing inside their own companies. TRW began moving IT development work offshore to India four years ago, mostly through attrition and shifting contract work overseas. Drouin, who became vice president and CIO after the move began, says he didn't do enough to clarify which jobs were going to stay in the United States and which ones would go. "We talked around that issue, and we didn't talk in black and white," he says. "I think it was because we anticipated a negative reaction." He got it. Morale plummeted, and there was a lot of grumbling and dissatisfaction among the staff. "It was like a dark cloud hanging over everything we did," Drouin says.
Technology jobs are following a path well-trodden by the manufacturing industry, which sent millions of jobs offshore or simply eliminated them in the past 30 years, contributing to a drop in the average wages of low-skill workers. Technology professionals will face the same kind of wage drop, and the work could go offshore much faster than manufacturing did, according to Matthew Slaughter, Dartmouth College's associate professor of business administration. "(IT work) will move faster because it's easier to ship work across phone lines and put consultants on airplanes than it is to ship bulky raw materials across borders and build factories and deal with tariffs and transportation." Indeed, by the end of 2004, research company Gartner estimates, one in 10 IT jobs at US IT companies and one in 20 at non-IT companies will move offshore.
Revving up the speed even more are temporary worker visa programs that allow foreign companies to relocate employees here in the United States to coordinate the offshore work. Opposition to these visas is growing; currently under consideration at the national and state level are a number of bills designed to limit them. Their passage would slow the movement of jobs offshore and perhaps force US companies to bring some work back onshore.
Even if such legislation is passed, many observers expect the offshore trend to continue. And its long-term implications for the US IT industry have some deeply concerned. As the bulk of technology work moves offshore, the deep, experiential knowledge that comes from coding applications and solving technology problems--the soil of technology innovation--could move offshore with it. US IT services companies don't spend much on R&D, but they are still innovative because they build the US technology infrastructure, says Ron Hira, chairman of the R&D policy committee with the US branch of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a nonprofit research and advocacy group.
"The reason (U.S. companies) can innovate without spending much on R&D is that they are learning each time they do an implementation," he says. "You build up that knowledge in those workers, and there's spillover as they move into other sectors, start new software companies or take a permanent job with a client. If we don't have that knowledge base here, we will lose out on that innovation and spillover."
TRW Automotive's Drouin wonders where he will find his next rising stars in IT if he isn't growing them internally. "It isn't clear what the new entry-level job in IT will be," he says. "We haven't eliminated all our developer jobs, but a good portion is gone. So where do you look for that superstar who is doing a great job and has a rapport with the customer and understands your business?"
Jobs, Homes, Families
Inside an Elks Club lodge in an ugly strip mall in Wethersfield, Conn., a group of former IT workers are gathering. They have little in common besides the fact that they're out of work, having recently been laid off by big Connecticut IT employers such as Cigna, GE, ING, Northeastern Utilities and United Technologies. The group at the meeting is a mix of male and female, young and old, though more have gray in their hair than not.
The aluminum-gated window that connects to the Veterans of Foreign Wars bar next door slams down, signaling the end of drink sales. Everyone squints with anticipation toward the front of the room, where John Bauman, president and cofounder of Toraw and himself an unemployed IT manager, shouts over the blasting air-conditioning system to bring the meeting to order.
"This is about our jobs, our homes, our families," he tells the group.
His speech, and that of the other Toraw officials, rambles. Bauman admits that the group hasn't quite found its direction yet. But on one point Bauman and the other leaders of Toraw are clear: While pointing out that their group does not oppose immigrants or immigration, they rip into the H-1B and L-1 visa laws, saying both programs are being abused and have created a rise in illegal immigration.
These foreign workers are the focal point of most Toraw members' anger. Frustration boils over a few times at the meeting. "How active are you going to be?" demands an angry man in his early fifties. Another calls visas "a tool of the devil" and goes on to excoriate the "corporate greed of CEOs that is ruining this country." A woman questions the strategy of going after H-1B and L-1 visas. "I see offshoring as more of a threat than H-1B or L-1," she says. "Whole departments are going offshore. What do you propose? Taxes? Tariffs?"
"Taxes, tariffs and reporting every foreign nonimmigrant worker onsite in Connecticut companies," promptly responds James Pace, Toraw's vice president.
A man in the audience fumes that offshore outsourcing has the potential to wipe out the middle class. "Are our legislators aware of this?" he asks.
Of the three Connecticut legislators who have sent representatives to the meeting, only one representative speaks: Mark Stephanou, director of constituent services from US Sen. Christopher Dodd's office. He doesn't have anything conclusive to say, either. "We are as concerned about jobs as you are," he offers. (Later, Dodd became a sponsor of a bill in Congress to limit the L-1 and H-1B visas.)
Toraw describes itself as a grassroots movement, not a union. But some say that if the outsourcing trend continues, a white-collar labour movement could arise. This time, the structure would be completely different than the traditional blue-collar labour unions (think Internet rather than union hall).
"I believe that some sort of e-labor movement is going to rise in IT," says Maria Schafer, program director for Meta Group. Indeed, the Internet is already the preferred meeting place for disaffected IT workers. Marcus Courtney, president of Washtech, one of a handful of unions that serve IT exclusively, says his membership is only about 250, but the number of subscribers to his email newsletter went from 2,000 at the beginning of 2003 to 14,000 in June. Dozens of websites such as Toraw's have sprung up on the Web, many with an anti-visa or deeper anti-immigration theme.
Opponents of offshore outsourcing ignore the large benefits that it brings to the US economy, says Sunil Mehta, vice president of the National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom) in India. Mehta estimates that US companies will save up to US$11 billion in 2004 by outsourcing to India and that India will purchase $3 billion in high-tech imports from the United States in that time. "I think it is really a two-way mutually beneficial argument," he says. "If IBM is able to lower its cost structure, the US economy benefits as a whole."
Mehta argues that trade protectionism has not helped other American industries such as the steel industry, where employment has declined 80 % since its peak, he says, nor has it helped steel consuming industries in the United States that were forced to pay high prices for steel. "At the individual US IT employee level, I do not have any answers," he says, "but if you look at it in a total economic perspective, it is mutually beneficial."
Gone for Good
It's tempting to write off the threats of offshore outsourcing. The economy will improve, IT workers will find new jobs, opposition to offshoring of US jobs will melt, and all will be well. Or offshore outsourcing will never mature to the point where anything but the most basic development work and maintenance will go offshore. That's what some economists like Robert Reich think. According to various analyst company predictions, only about 10 % to 20 % of IT jobs will go offshore.
Anyone who subscribes to this soothing theory risks getting blindsided. The trend will continue (unless the US government intervenes) because the apparent cost advantages are simply too seductive. According to a May 2003 survey by CIO, 68 % of the more than 100 IT executives who responded said their offshore contracts will increase this year. Only 30 % foresaw no change.
"The primary benefit to moving IT offshore is cost, and the only thing that's holding it back is building up the capabilities offshore to do the work," says IEEE's Hira. "So unless you could come up with a way that markedly advances US workers productivity so that they could produce a higher-quality product faster than they do today, there is no economic incentive to keep the work here."
In other words, this isn't like the old days, when the local factory used to lay off workers during a lean spring and hire them back in the fall when demand picked up again. The IT jobs that are going offshore are going there for good. It's what economists call a structural, as opposed to cyclical, change in the labour market. And if costs in India--the primary centre of offshore IT work today--begin to rise, the work will move to other cheap offshore locations, such as China.
The trend toward offshore outsourcing has only just begun. Indeed, in the CIO survey, 67 % of respondents did not begin offshore outsourcing until after 2000. Offshore outsourcing is just beginning to hit the mainstream, with 80 % of companies saying they will discuss it in 2003, according to Gartner.
Until now, offshore outsourcing has been mostly limited to large companies that have big chunks of work to send offshore (the coordination expenses were too high to make small projects cost-effective). But as the offshore outsourcing companies have matured, so have their processes. "Many of our clients are now starting projects with five people," says Peter Harrison, CEO of Induslogic, a global outsourcing company.
As more jobs move offshore, the work will move higher on the IT food chain. Indeed, it already has. The CIO survey found that 11 % of the companies had outsourced system and architecture planning offshore, and 14 % had outsourced research and development--two categories that analysts and chief information officers have predicted would never leave these shores. "When people say there is IT work that can't be done offshore, I disagree; it just takes longer to move the more complex work offshore," says Atul Vashistha, CEO of Neo-IT, an outsourcing advisory company.
The Dilemma for CIOs
When low-skilled manufacturing work left these shores beginning in the 1970s, the US economy reabsorbed those workers into other areas of the economy--primarily in the services sector, says Dartmouth's Slaughter. It's this reabsorption effect that leads the majority of economists to believe that global competition is ultimately good for the US economy. Manufacturing companies in the United States are now more productive than they were before they faced international competition. Higher productivity per worker means more corporate profits and higher salaries on average, as long as the workers being displaced can be reabsorbed into the economy somewhere else.
Even if workers are reabsorbed, however, it doesn't necessarily mean they will be better off. Low-skilled workers make less in real dollars today than they did in 1973. Now that white-collar jobs are coming under the same global competitive pressure, the same effect on wages may be felt at the managerial level. "In the past, the distributional impacts from global competition were pretty clear," says Slaughter. "The more-skilled guys are going to benefit from more global engagement, and the low-skilled guys aren't. Now it's more of a grab bag."
Experts don't see a "white knight" industry that will come along to do for IT workers what the services sector did for displaced manufacturing workers. Other high-skilled fields are also under pressure from international competition--accounting, engineering and architecture are already feeling the same kind of pressure as IT. As competition for skilled service jobs in the United States increases and low-cost options increase offshore, white-collar wages could begin to drop across the board. Economic statistics show that when people change jobs because of global competition, it usually involves a decline in wages, at least initially.
Even so, many CIOs see the move offshore as inevitable.
"You can fight global trade with tariffs, but long term it just doesn't work," says Jeff Campbell, vice president of technology services and CIO of Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railway. The company has outsourced 40 % of its development work to the Indian company Infosys. Campbell says that he was able to achieve the employment shifts without layoffs, mostly through attrition.
"You have to meet cost challenges or you won't provide shareholder returns," Campbell adds. "We are intertwined with the global economy now, so the question is how to embrace that and move it forward."
This is not to say that CIOs don't have ethical qualms about what they see going on inside their departments. The CIO from the previously mentioned Fortune 100 manufacturer sounds as angry as the displaced workers at the Toraw meeting when the discussion turns to temporary work visas. He says Indian contractors consistently abuse the requirement that they first look for a suitable American to fill the job before bringing in an Indian on a visa. "Every now and then one of the big (Indian) companies comes to me and says, 'Before you sign the contract, we need you to sign an affidavit that says you looked for Americans to do the work and you didn't find them,'" he says. "And I say, 'Get out of here. That's a lie. I won't do it.' And they say, 'OK, OK,' and somehow it becomes a nonissue."
That CIO feels guilty, but he is insulated from the ethical and legal implications of the visa issue, indeed from the entire transition to offshore--as is his company. Its executives simply are not involved, except to make the decision in the first place. They hire an outsourcing company, and the outsourcing company takes care of all the messy immigration and work transition issues. Nor is there the kind of visible drama to the IT move offshore that there was during the manufacturing transition, when major plant closings made the news. The movement of IT jobs offshore is happening quietly, almost imperceptibly. And if the economy continues in the doldrums, few new jobs will be created to replace them.
The government is not prepared to deal with the prospect of millions of highly educated, well-paid white-collar workers hitting the unemployment rolls for extended periods of time. Universities are focused on educating young people, not older workers who need to retrain themselves for a new white-collar occupation after years in the workforce. Even economists who support globalization agree that the transition for white-collar workers in the coming years will be difficult until new industries arise to take the place of ones with jobs being sent overseas. Dartmouth's Slaughter, for one, advocates that the government focus on easing job transitions for white-collar workers by making pensions and insurance more portable across jobs, and offering tax credits for older employees who want to relocate to find a new job or go back to college for retraining.
If IT employees want to stay employed in this new era, they must be willing to accept lower wages, change jobs more frequently, relocate when necessary and consider going back to school to gain new skills.
"I don't have a ready answer for what we do in IT after we send these jobs offshore," says TRW Automotive's Drouin. Even so, he feels he has no choice but to continue with the offshore strategy--it saves his company a great deal of money.
However, the Fortune 100 CIO who has that recurring nightmare is worried that it's too easy for companies like his to outsource overseas today. "Look, I can't wake up tomorrow and decide I'm going to move to Italy and get a job," he says. "So why should someone from another country be able to come here on a temporary visa and take jobs from Americans? There are people who say open everything up. That's one world view. Another view is you bring people in to the extent that you can assimilate them, and that they build on the society rather than disrupt the society.
"I don't want to wake up one day and find that American IT has disappeared."
The Visa War
Globalization of the IT labour force may be an inevitable trend, but there's no question that it is getting a shot of adrenaline from the US government in the form of temporary worker visas known as L-1 and H-1B. Foreign outsourcing companies use these visa programs to bring employees into the United States to coordinate work back home. And that has critics in a fury. "This is not a natural economic process," says Ron Hira, chairman of the R&D policy committee with the US branch of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a nonprofit research and advocacy group. "Much of the offshore outsourcing going on today is based on US government regulations that encourage it."
Both visas were introduced at times when US companies were short on skilled labour and needed foreign help. H-1B allows companies to bring in skilled, college-educated workers in certain "specialty occupations" that include everything from IT and law to fashion modeling. Workers must be paid US prevailing wages for the job and cannot replace an American worker with the same skills and knowledge. The L-1 visa is much broader. There is no salary requirement and no explicit ban on replacing American workers, just a need to be functioning in a "managerial or executive capacity" (L-1A visa) or have "specialized knowledge" of the company's products or business operations or processes (L-1B). L-1 visa holders can stay in the United States up to seven years and six for H-1B holders.
Undoubtedly, when Congress approved these visas, it did not envision that they would pave the way for offshore outsourcing. Yet that's exactly what they do. Foreign outsourcing companies--today, mostly Indian companies--establish a local US presence and apply for H-1B and or L-1 visas to bring employees into their offices. Most are immediately farmed out to US outsourcing clients where they are trained in the jobs they will do before returning home, according to Hira. Others--typically 10 % to 30 % of the total staff--remain here for a longer term and act as liaisons between the US client and the employees doing the coding back in the foreign country. If those liaisons are brought in on L-1 visas, they can be paid prevailing wages for an IT project manager back home, which in India can be anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000, according to various estimates.
The L-1 visa, in particular, gives foreign outsourcing companies an artificial competitive advantage over their US competitors, critics say. They can afford to bid low-wage rates not only for employees back home in India but also for managers based in the United States, something that US companies--even if they have an office in India--cannot do, unless they hire foreigners and bring them over to the United States on visas. "These companies can underbid based on L-1 and win business they wouldn't normally win," says IEEE's Hira.
Unfair? Maybe. Illegal? No, says Robert Charles Hill, an immigration attorney in Miami. It's legitimate as long as the L-1 workers are functioning as project managers or have specialized knowledge of their companies' products or business processes.
If the temporary worker visa programs are curtailed, it could force offshore outsourcing companies to completely rethink their current business models. Some CIOs experienced in offshore outsourcing say that if foreign managers are prevented from entering the country on L-1 and H-1B visas, projects with their offshore outsourcing partners would collapse and they would be forced to bring at least some of the work back home. "If these visas went away it would cripple things in the short term," says Joan Conway, global solutions manager of managed services for outsourcing company Fujitsu Consulting.
Visas are the pressure point that opponents are using on legislators at the state and federal level to try to stem the tide of offshore outsourcing. Already, two bills to limit visas to varying degrees have been introduced to Congress, but both were still in committee at press time. A handful of states including Connecticut, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey and Washington have proposed bills limiting offshore outsourcing.
Of course, even if the visas are curtailed, it probably will not stem the long-term trend toward IT labour globalization. Trade agreements between the United States and foreign countries could trump the legislation. Last May, for example, President Bush signed a Free Trade Agreement with Singapore, a small but growing IT outsourcing destination, that would allow workers from Singapore to work in the United States without salary restrictions or limitations on the length of time they could remain here.
What CIOs Can Do
1. Whittle, Don't Hack
Successful offshore outsourcing takes time--at least two to three years, say experts--so use that time to cut your US workforce through attrition rather than layoffs.
2. Offer Training
CIOs owe it to their staffs to give them an opportunity to become the kinds of employees whose jobs won't be outsourced offshore, at least in the short term. Offer training classes in less transferable skills such as requirements analysis, architecture planning, business process design, contract management and business relationship management.
3. Find Out Who Wants to Leave
Employees may not always want to keep their jobs. Perhaps they're close to retirement or are desperate to leave but just haven't done it. Ask for volunteers before you start cutting.
Employees won't like you if you tell them their jobs are going to be outsourced in a few months. But they'll hate you if you don't tell them. Hate has more long-term implications for you and your company than dislike.
5. Don't Hold Benefits Hostage
Employees who are forced to train their offshore replacements to receive severance pay feel humiliated and angry. Find another way to get foreign workers up to speed if you can.
6. Lobby for Curriculum Changes
Colleges need help to change their curriculums to make IT graduates more prepared for global competition. Call university faculty and tell them what you see happening.