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Dealing with Offshore Outsourcing

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Offshore Outsourcing:
What It Is and Why It’s Important to Understand It

What is offshore outsourcing?

Until several years ago, no one had heard the term “offshore outsourcing;” now the term is commonplace. Simply put, offshore outsourcing refers to when a company outsources laborusually “commodity” laborto an overseas labor market to take advantage of the cheaper labor costs. As a company looks to improve its bottom line, remain competitive, and keep shareholders happy, one of the first things it looks at is labor costs. As a result a company just offshore to take advantage of a tax loophole (as Stanley Tools tried to do not long ago), or may eliminate US jobs and hire overseas workers to do the same work for less pay.

Offshore outsourcing began with the sending of manufacturing jobsparticularly in the clothing industryoverseas. Lumber, fishing, and other industries followed suit. To be fair, it must be pointed out that changes in environmental laws put many US workers out of jobs; combined with worldwide competition, these changes have devastated some industries. One must look, however, at the bigger picture to see that environmental regulation is not an entirely bad thing. Over-fishing and extensive clear-cutting have put some ecosystems in serious danger.

Where did the technical writing jobs go?

Labor experts have been talking recently about “jobless recovery,” meaning when economic recovery takes place without the creation of new jobs; they are referring to this as the new standard, not the exception. These experts also point out that one of the causes of jobless recovery is that workers are required to be ever more productiveto make use of technology, to work more hours, to work harderas if Americans aren’t the hardest working people on the planet already! Volumes have been written about the effects of Americans’ overworked, over-stressed, over-consumptive lives, so I won’t get into that here.

The other cause of jobless recovery that labor experts point to is offshore outsourcing. According to the Communications Workers of America, 400,000 IT jobs have been lost to offshore outsourcing www.cwa-union.org/issues/H-1B/changes.asp. An article in Money magazine says “these jobs are never coming back” money.cnn.com/2003/03/13/news/economy/jobs_offshore. A search of google.com for “offshore outsourcing” yields thousands of linksmany of which are companies whose sole mission is to provide offshore outsourcing services for other companies.

Technical writing and other information technology jobs, especially in customer service, have been outsourced to countries such as Ireland, the Philippines, and India, delegated to a non-writer, or eliminated altogether. You may have called your ISP or software help line in the past couple of years and spoken with a person with a distinct Indian accent. In India, a technical writer, trained in the Queen’s English, makes $12 an hour, compared to his or her US counterpart doing the same job, at $40 an hour. One can see why companies turn to offshore outsourcing to cut costs, especially for “commodity” jobs. Some companies outsource departments overseas, creating special problems for onshore and offshore workers attempting to work together (see Samantha Lizak’s article “Working with an Offshore Team,” in the current newsletter to read how her company is handling these issues).

A moral issue?

In some people’s view, offshore outsourcing is immoralthe taking of talented, local workers’ jobs and giving them to a foreign worker for the sake of saving a few dollars does beg the question: Do corporations have that much power? Is it really the “right” thing to do? Can we do anything about this? These are questions that society will have to answer over time. They have as much to do with our culture as our politics and economics.

What can be done about offshore outsourcing?

Some readers will notice that I’ve used the term “commodity jobs” a couple of times in this article. For technical communicators, if we are to weather the offshore outsourcing trend, we must be to move beyond “commodity.” Not to harp on the subject of moving to the role of strategic contributor (and a topic of the September program meeting), but this is the demand of the times: To be flexible and adaptable enough to move beyond being “just a tech writer” (besides, anyone can write…) to being a strategic contributora person who is able to play a proactive role in his or her company, and who happens to be a technical communicator. I believe that the strategic contributor role is the future of technical communication, for both writers and STC as an organization.

Some technical writers may be opposedeven vehemently opposedto the idea of the strategic contributor role. This is understandableit is human nature to desire to remain in one’s comfort zone. The need for technical writers-in the comfortable, “commodity” sensewill always be there. However, the need may be met by companies in ways that we writers may not always like: we probably will see more engineers as tech writers, secretaries and administrative assistants as tech writers, and offshore outsourced tech writers. Why would a company pay $30 an hour for a trained US tech writer, when it can pay a writer in India $5 an hour to do the same job (besides, anyone can write…)?

Another demand of the times (also briefly addressed in the September program meeting), is that technical writerseven “commodity” tech writersmust market their skills and help employers understand why their talents and capabilities are beneficial and necessary. A strong case can also be made that good technical writing can actually improve a company’s bottom line by improving its documentation and communications. In summary, we must prove to those in corner offices why we deserve the salaries we believe we should earn. No, not just “anyone can write.”

Another solution for the offshore outsourcing conundrum is to simply accept it as a fact of life; and indeed, we must do this, at least to a degree, because all signs say offshore outsourcing is here to stay. In the September program meeting, State of Oregon Employment Department representative Dusty Moller said that technical writers have four options:

  • To stay in the same industry, and the same occupation
  • To stay in the same industry, and change occupations
  • To change one’s industry, and stay in the same occupation
  • To change both industry and occupation

In short, this last solution is to remain a commodity while calculating the possibilities of career/industry change.

Ain’t misbehavin’the technical writer as activist

Besides being flexible and adaptable, taking on a strategic contributor role, and marketing the need for our skills, there are other things technical writers can do to deal with offshore outsourcing:

Get involved and join an organization.

There is an organization based in Washington called TechsUnite (www.techsunite.org), an informal union of high technology workers. It serves IT workers all over the country by exploring issues concerning them.

Write letters or send e-mails to your congressman, newspapers, and Web sites.

Members of Congress from Washington State are very aware of the offshore outsourcing problem as it relates to Washington IT workers, and have been lobbying Congress to bring attention to and enact laws on the issue. Our elected representatives rely on our votes to remain in office, and what would happen if all technical writers and IT workers in all 50 states wrote to their congressmen and said that they refused to vote for them unless they did something about offshore outsourcing?

Indeed, some of this is already happening: In July, Washington senator Adam Smith (D) requested that the Federal General Accounting Office determine what effect the trend of offshore outsourcing is having on Washington’s jobs. (www.techsunite.org/news/techind/gao_study1.cfm)

While these things probably won’t change the course of offshore outsourcing (but who knows? miracles do happen, and the Berlin Wall fell), they at least will get the issue in front of the public, and, more importantly, in front of your congressman. Technical communicators must learn how to communicate in other ways besides electronically and on paperthey must develop their verbal communication skills and talk to others about their talents and capabilities, and discuss why they are important to the bottom line.