The Politics Behind Offshore Outsourcing

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 U.S. citizens by outsourcing work to foreign countries?" asks The Organization 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 Center in Boston.

Organized labor 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, Bank of America, DaimlerChrysler, General Electric, Procter & Gamble, Prudential and United Technologies—are outsourcing to offshore IT companies or expanding their own development centers out of the country.

Some CIOs, like Joe Drouin of TRW Automotive, 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 U.S. 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 U.S. companies to bring some work back onshore (see "The Visa War," this page).

Even if such legislation is passed, many observers expect the offshore trend to continue. And its long-term implications for the U.S. 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. U.S. IT services companies don’t spend much on R&D, but they are still innovative because they build the U.S. technology infrastructure, says Ron Hira, chairman of the R&D policy committee with the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 labor movement could arise. This time, the structure would be completely different than the traditional blue-collar labor 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 e-mail 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 U.S. economy, says Sunil Mehta, vice president of the National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom) in India. Mehta estimates that U.S. companies will save up to $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 U.S. 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 percent 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 percent to 20 percent of IT jobs will go offshore.

Anyone who subscribes to this soothing theory risks getting blindsided. The trend will continue (unless the U.S. government intervenes) because the apparent cost advantages are simply too seductive. According to a May 2003 survey by CIO, 68 percent of the more than 100 IT executives who responded said their offshore contracts will increase this year. Only 30 percent 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 U.S. 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 labor market. And if costs in India—the primary center 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 percent of respondents did not begin offshore outsourcing until after 2000. Offshore outsourcing is just beginning to hit the mainstream, with 80 percent of companies saying they will discuss it in 2003, according to Gartner.

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