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06:07 PM

Identity Crisis

Technology workers mull the impact of offshore outsourcing and struggle to find a unified voice

Last Tuesday morning in Burlingame, Calif., unemployed hardware engineer Cary Snyder was taking lessons from the pros on the finer points of picketing: Chants get you heard, big signs get you seen, and a permit prevents the police from asking you to leave.

Snyder had joined other technology workers and local organized-labor representatives on the sidewalk outside a hotel that was hosting an offshore-outsourcing conference. It was a surreal experience, he says. "I never thought of myself as ever needing to do something like this or thinking that the white-collar engineer in Silicon Valley would ever have such an incredible need," says Snyder, who can't find work despite a solid resumé and 20 years' experience.

It's been only a few years since business-technology professionals commanded top-dollar salaries and job-hopped with impunity. That tide has turned, leaving IT pros unsure of how to regain the footing they once had--or whether they ever can. Once standing at the helm as American business explored an exciting new frontier, many workers now feel they're being left at the dock as employers ship more and more tech jobs overseas and--in the face of persistent U.S. IT unemployment--testify to Congress about the need to continue supporting the H-1B visa program to bring in foreign technology workers.

It's taking a toll. "I'm delighted to be in technology. I live and breathe this," says Carl Flemister, a systems analyst and manager of technical services at software vendor CGW Inc., who has worked in the field since the 1960's. Still, because of the stresses the profession is under, "there are days, minutes, seconds when I feel like I could flip hamburgers at McDonald's."

Hardware engineer Cary Snyder

Snyder, an unemployed Silicon Valley hardware engineer, can't find work despite a solid resumé and 20 years' experience

Photo by Angie Wyant
Yet few IT people have gone as far as Snyder, pushing to change how businesses think about issues, such as offshore outsourcing, that affect their livelihood. Among the 50 protesters in Burlingame, Snyder says, union reps outnumbered tech workers nearly 4-to-1. "Technology workers in general are fearful of speaking up on worker-relation type issues," he says.

That reluctance could make it difficult for the fragmented IT workforce to have an impact on employers or stir up much sympathy among government policy makers, who have the clout to limit the appeal of using offshore workers or at least improve unemployment and training benefits for laid-off personnel. On that latter point, the feds haven't been much help. A case in point is the Department of Labor's refusal to extend cash and job-training benefits to technology workers who have applied for aid under the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program, which was established some 40 years ago to help manufacturing workers whose jobs were sent overseas. The reason: IT workers are usually classified by the Labor Department as services providers, not manufacturers who produce tangible "products."

That rationale outrages Kenneth Weiss, who became an independent computer consultant after he was laid off. "Every company requires IT people to sign a nondisclosure agreement that says their work is a product of the company, not the individual," he says. "How can the government say IT people don't produce a product?"

The situation goes beyond the government's failure to understand that IT workers' roles have evolved from feeding punch cards into mainframes to masterminding projects and products that drive business innovation. "The government doesn't understand and recognize the number of studies out lately about IT jobs that will move offshore," says Bradford Brown, chairman of the nonprofit National Center for Technology and Law and former chief counsel for technology in the first Bush administration. For example, research firm Gartner predicts that one in 10 U.S. IT jobs will move offshore by next year.

Some lawmakers agree. "Well into the '90s, no one felt that tech workers needed lobbyists," says Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who's drafting a bill that would extend the Trade Adjustment Act's benefits to technology workers. While there's growing recognition of their issues, "there's a long way to go," he says.

The IT employment picture is a jumble of contradictions. A Senate Judiciary Committee last week heard companies such as Ingersoll-Rand Co. and Intel say they support H-1B visas, because they still can't find enough qualified tech professionals to fill vacant slots. On the other hand, the nonprofit Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology presented a study during a congressional briefing that found that 5.9% of IT professionals were unemployed in the first half of 2003, compared with 1.9% three years ago. Using U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the commission pegs the employed IT workforce at 3.3 million people.

Still, the issue is getting some attention. The Department of Commerce recently published a 200-plus page document on the need for improved IT training and education in the United States.

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