Patriot act

Love it or hate it, non-U.S. outsourcing looks here to stay. Here are some ways to deal with the inevitable.

Q: I used to be a help-desk star, but now I’m just another unemployed techie who is trying to stifle bad feelings about India. A few months ago, I was laid off because my company decided to send most of the work to Bangalore. My manager, who was also let go, told me that people who called our support line would be transferred to India and wouldn’t even realize it. I’m not usually a xenophobic person, but after weeks of pounding the pavement and finding that this is a tactic being done by many other companies in my area, I’m feeling pretty grouchy about the whole trend. Is there some specialty that is less likely to be outsourced? And how can I stop feeling so angry toward people I don’t even know?

A: For companies that need to choose between cutting costs or closing their doors, outsourcing to foreign countries can make sense. According to some analysts, as much as 40 percent of IT costs can be saved by shipping work overseas. But you’re not alone in feeling crabby about it. IT employees are increasingly feeling angry about lost jobs, cut wages, and unpaid overtime due to offshore outsourcing.

Before you begin picketing your local Indian restaurant, however, you need to understand that focusing your anger in the direction of Bangalore will get you nowhere, fast. Like U.S. technology workers, the programmers and help-desk personnel of India–and China, Russia, Eastern Europe, and parts of South America–just want what you want: They want to work. They want to be paid a livable wage. The problem here is that their acceptable wage is probably much lower than yours.

So, who’s to blame? Your company? Let’s face it, saving an enormous amount of payroll costs and getting the same amount of work is a pretty tempting prospect for any firm, especially one that might be in trouble. Offshore outsourcing is chock full of issues that make most CEOs wince. Regulatory difficulties, culture conflicts, and management challenges are the least of it. But when the dollar amount saved is greater than the stumbling blocks presented, layoffs loom.

Maybe it’s the government, you say? Certainly, the economy is still wretched for many people, unemployment is rampant, and few major incentives to keep jobs at home are coming out of Washington. Yet even pointing the finger toward Pennsylvania Avenue won’t get you that job back. So, here’s some tough-love kind of advice: Stop trying to find someone to blame. Learn to deal with your anger about unemployment through healthy means, like talking about it with other downsized techies. Sitting in your living room stewing about a help desk rep named Jagadeep or Mandar is going to make you feel worse, not better.

Then, when some of the steam is out of your whistle, you can look toward new career paths in technology. Help-desk work and low-level programming duties are not the areas to explore if you want to avoid another outsourcing round. Rather, you should understand that companies tend not to send out complicated tasks, critical projects, or specialized work. Jobs that fall into these categories include security, project management, computer repair, and outsourcing management.

In an unstable geopolitical environment, any company that outsources projects with sensitive data is facing severe security risks. Similarly, internal security is needed to lock down everything from wireless networks to VPNs. Project management, too, is often not sent out simply because doing so would give any CTO an instant migraine. Projects require frequent communication, and don’t benefit from cultural obstacles or far-flung time zones. The field is also short of experienced employees, according to CompTIA, and is destined to grow.

Here’s a bold move you might consider: Join the outsourcers. In order to work well with a foreign country, a company often has a manager who serves as a bridge between management on both sides. Harness that energy you’re using to get angry and put it to good use by taking management classes, or even language classes like Hindi or Russian.

Finally, there’s computer repair. If you’re proficient at this, it can be a stellar new field for you to explore. The rise in home networking, and the continual need for repair specialists in the corporate world, means that the field is fairly stable. Also, no one would send a computer overseas just to get a video card installed, so you may be dodging future outsourcing waves.

Having a job pulled out from under you is never fun. But, just like many other technology initiatives, offshore outsourcing is a major trend that’s going to continue. It’s up to you whether to look back in anger or look ahead with optimism.

Send your career-related questions to Elizabeth Millard.

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