White-collar jobs joining blue-collar counterparts overseas


After bidding farewell to several of the blue-collar jobs traditionally held by factory workers, the local and national economy soon could be kissing white-collar information technology opportunities goodbye as well.

That huge wave of IT jobs that promised to float college students plenty of money to meet their high standards of post-graduate living - with lots of cash left over for having fun in the sun at exotic vacation spots - seems instead to be washing up on the shores of foreign beaches these days.

This latest trend - known as outsourcing or offshoring - is pulling what once were thought to be "all-American" dream jobs into an undertow of uncertainty these days, according to regional educators and economic and work force development experts.

Jim Anderson, general manager of the Holston Business Development Center in Kingsport, said this week that an increasing number of American businesses are making what appear to be some very un-American choices when it comes to shaping our nation's economic future.

"American college graduates who were a couple of years ago soaking up that California sun in the Silicon Valley - and all of the money that came with those great IT jobs - are now busy trying to figure out how to live out of their cars," Anderson said.

Such sought-after IT jobs now have been outsourced to such nations as India, the current hot spot for hiring foreign-educated workers to do the same job at a much cheaper rate than homegrown American professionals, Anderson said.

For example, the average computer programmer in India right now is earning $20 per hour in wages and benefits as opposed to the typical American computer programmer with a comparable college degree and experience, who typically is hired for no less than $65 per hour.

In addition, the average worker in India stays at the same job an average of three years, more than double the time of today's average U.S. employee, saving American corporations thousands of dollars in recruitment and training costs per employee per year.

American accounting and medical billing firms are also among the better-paying career opportunities jumping aboard what isn't proving to be such a slow boat to China, India and even Russia. Accountants in India typically earn $400 per month, while U.S. accountants make an average of $4,000 per month.

"You now have American businesses locating their headquarters offshore and saving themselves a bundle in U.S. taxes they would otherwise be responsible for paying," Anderson said.

Anderson, along with P.C. Snapp, executive director of the Johnson City Development Board, agreed that along with the number crunching that reveals millions of dollars in savings for American companies who outsource work, the work ethic of the work force here and in foreign countries is also being closely scrutinized.

"We have a work force here in the United States which has become outright complacent, and that all has to do with poor education of our young people in preparing them for the work force - both at school and at home," Anderson said.

"Education is the key, and we're no longer talking about just pushing our young people to get a high school diploma. In the new world economy, they're all going to need a college degree," Anderson said.

Tennessee State Comptroller John Morgan told Johnson City business leaders as recently as December that "those factory jobs in the shrinking manufacturing and textile industries that don't require more than a high school education are leaving our state, and they're never, ever coming back."

Snapp pointed to recent examples in the community where local factories have packed up and left town, with at least some of them moving overseas. "It's bad enough when we lost General Mills in our town, because its corporate headquarters decided it wanted to keep its plants closer to the wheat-producing states.

But then we see such industries as Best Manufacturing and EZ Painter moving business to places like China because they can pay their people less money and get more work," Snapp said.

"Then there was Burlington Industries that transferred to Malaysia, and all of the textile trades we see moving to China, Vietnam and Mexico. It becomes of even greater concern locally when we hear that not only blue-collar factory jobs, but now also white-collar IT jobs, are headed in the same direction," Snapp said.

In a national economy where corporate America can't even get its employees - many of whom have no more than a high school education - to show up for work, for young people in India a college education is mandatory.

"There, if you don't have a college education, you won't even qualify to work an office job," Snapp said. "I was reading an Ernst and Young report today that said in 2002 accounting firms sent 25,000 tax returns to India to be completed by accountants there," Snapp said.

This year, that number is expected to double, according to the same report. In a research report released last summer, Gartner Inc. - a national economic studies firm - predicted that at least one out of 10 technology jobs would move overseas by the end of 2004.

Copyright January 29, 2004 Kingsport Times-News.