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Down To Business: The American IT Pro Isn't An Endangered Species

Just because industries get disrupted and uprooted, whether by foreign competition or domestic ineptitude, doesn't mean they're dead ends.
Judging from the many e-mails and online-column posts I've received of late, pessimism pervades the IT profession. We've all heard the dire predictions: Tech employers are engaged in a "race to the bottom" as they slash costs and rush offshore, heralding the beginning of the "Asian century." The United States is fast becoming a shell economy of lawyers, traders, and short-order cooks--a nation of manipulators rather than creators. "Globalization" is merely corporate management speak for ruthless job destruction.

John Porter, president of IT consultancy Contexxa, thinks the American tech professional "has about as much of a future as a New England textile mill worker of the previous century." The only American tech pros to be spared, he says, are those with very specialized expertise and those who perform personal services such as customer support--"and that exception occurs only when customers demand it." Porter goes on to note that offshoring is engulfing most U.S. knowledge worker professions, including architects, designers, researchers, and, yes, even editors.

Point taken. The Internet already has turned my media industry upside down, and no doubt global competition will flip it again. As with IT, most of the people in the media profession didn't get in because it's safe and it pays particularly well; we got in (and stay) because it's stimulating and dynamic. Also in media as in IT, jobs are regularly lost, organizations are disbanded and restructured, career paths take unexpected and uncomfortable turns. But change, even dramatic, wrenching change, doesn't portend the end of the profession.

Consider another U.S. sector long said to be on a foreign-induced death spiral: manufacturing. Last year, U.S. manufacturers recorded record output, revenue, profits, profit rates, and return on investment, according to a recent report by the Cato Institute's Daniel J. Ikenson, who notes that the sector produced 2-1/2 times the output of "those vaunted Chinese factories." Among the stats compiled by trade publication IndustryWeek: The U.S. manufacturing sector, with its $1.4 trillion in annual output, represents the eighth-largest economy in the world, nearly the size of China's entire economy. Four out of five U.S. manufacturers expect their revenue to increase in 2007 from 2006.

Yet many U.S. manufacturing subsectors, such as autos, steel, and textiles, continue to struggle. And all that expected industry-wide revenue growth comes amid a decline in the total number of U.S. manufacturing jobs--that is, on the backs of impressive productivity gains made possible, in part, by IT advances. Still, for all the hardship in places like Flint, Mich., and Gary, Ind. (and old mill towns in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts), places like Warrenville, Ill., Smyrna, Tenn., and Wheeling, W. Va., present vibrant manufacturing success stories. The landscape shifts, but such shifts bring opportunities as well as pitfalls.

No industry is immune to global competition. We already know the extent to which accounting, programming, engineering, call center, human resources, and other white-collar occupations are vulnerable, but even parts of "safe" professions such as health care, legal, and education can be farmed out to cheaper workers abroad.

So should we discourage Americans from entering or staying in those fields? No. Just because industries get disrupted and uprooted doesn't mean they're dead ends. If you long for a Leave It To Beaver world where life is simple and jobs are secure, watch Nick at Nite and take the civil service exam.

The U.S. tech sector and American IT professionals are more than capable of holding their own in a global economy. Job loss, salary pressure, and foreign competition are par for this course. Everyone in every U.S. industry can point to examples where people were mistreated, mismanaged, and undervalued. But those widespread exceptions still aren't the rule.

Rob Preston,
VP/Editor In Chief

[email protected]

To find out more about Rob Preston, please visit his page.