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Study: Not all entry-level IT work headed offshore

And Berkeley researcher says "downskilling" of some tech duties, combined with training programs, may help bridge the digital divide.

Even in the face of offshore outsourcing, there's hope for entry-level tech work in the United States.

That's the conclusion of a recent study by a University of California, Berkeley, researcher, who argues that the "downskilling" of some information technology work combined with training programs can potentially move many low-wage workers "into jobs with a career ladder."

"Although some entry-level work is disappearing offshore, the economy still offers opportunities for jobseekers with little college education to work in IT," Berkeley professor Karen Chapple wrote in a report published in March.

Chapple's conclusion would seem to run counter to much of the talk about the offshore phenomenon. Companies have been moving basic coding tasks--and in some cases higher-level research or design work--to lower-wage countries such as India. U.S. techies have been advised to upgrade their skills or combine business and technology savvy in order to remain competitive.

There's also a theory that IT itself worsens social divisions and income equality, in part by fueling a transformation of the economy into two poles: high-end knowledge workers and low-skill service workers.

But after interviewing more than 200 people, including IT employers, jobseekers and training providers, and conducting other research, Chapple found that the so-called digital divide can be bridged. Key is the emergence of entry-level IT tasks such as computer support, she said. As computers became more commonplace, Chapple said, computer support duties evolved into a separate job instead of additional work for computer programmers. What Chapple calls "IT maintainer" jobs, including computer support, require relatively little training--such as an associate's degree, she contends.

And Chapple offered a sunny prognosis on the prospect that at least some tech work will remain onshore. "Although many companies continue to investigate offshoring routine jobs that are outside their core competencies, some are finding that IT support may actually be core to how the company operates and thus are keeping it in-house," she wrote.

Chapple argued that nonprofit job training programs are important for disadvantaged individuals, in part because the programs "help them network into jobs."

But she was critical of a key federal program designed to help job seekers. "Unfortunately, these training programs emerged in spite of, not because of, the Workforce Investment Act," she wrote. "Although government funding...supports such programs in some states, these nonprofits rarely qualify for WIA training monies."