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Where did my IT job go?

Industry veteran William Grebenik says that with today's offshore-outsourcing craze, American tech workers have to take extra steps to remain viable.

    I just received an e-mail from an old friend who left Colorado and moved to Silicon Valley to work three years ago.

    His first company laid him off about a year ago, but he found another position. Now, he says he is looking to return to the mountains. His company is moving software development to India and hardware production to China.

    What happened to his dreams of making cash and driving a new Porsche? He did all the right things. You remember the things you were told to do. Graduate high school, complete college and major in computers. At least that was the plan for the last 20 years of the 20th century.

    Now, however, that is no longer a guarantee of success. The American Electronics Association has stated that we have lost 540,000 high-tech jobs in 2002 in the United States. And we also lost 146,000 software positions, a first for the United States. In Colorado, we lost 27,000 high-tech jobs in 2002. El Paso County lost approximately 3,000 positions.

    The average wage for these positions was $69,277. So, my county lost more than $207 million in wages last year alone. That is one huge hit to a local economy of 420,000 people.

    Our jobs were lost because of a variety of factors.

    Markets hate high prices, and our labor was extremely high-priced.
    First, the federal government bargained for free trade with other countries. Free trade means more open markets and the free movement of capital, goods and services. This encourages good behavior from nation-states and promotes U.S. interests abroad. This is a plus for consumers and trade but a permanent net loss for the U.S. industrial base.

    Second, we had a very strong recession. I know, because I got hit in this one, too. Now, the United States is showing signs of recovery.

    Third, we had the invisible hand of Adam Smith at work. Markets hate high prices, and our labor was extremely high-priced. Industry fought back with H-1B visas, and now they are fighting back with white-collar jobs being exported to lower-wage countries. The development of low-cost telecommunications, coupled with the fact that most knowledge workers do not need large infrastructures, means that many more options exist for getting the work done cheaply than did 10 years ago.

    We priced our skills very highly in the 1990s. I had one young man on my team making $35 an hour with one year of college and no certifications. He was making more than $80,000 a year with overtime at age 20, with no experience. I met many two-hour-lunch folk and 'I can't get in before 9 a.m.' people, too. Of course, management went looking to reduce costs. And the salespeople for offshore companies were right there to sell it to them.

    This has happened before in the United States. Steel, automobiles, textiles, chemicals--entire industries have gone global.

    Some of you will never work in IT again.
    Some recovered, and some have not. Honda makes cars in Ohio, Nissan in Tennessee and BMW in South Carolina. Some argued that American labor was too high. The competitiveness of U.S. industry, in addition to labor being cheaper and more flexible, brought some jobs back.

    Costs will force us to equilibrium. For now, jobs are being sucked to the lowest-cost labor pool. Quality, experience, flexibility and project communications have been pushed back by the overriding concern of cost savings.

    Some of you will never work in IT again. Most of us will have different jobs in time from our current positions. Those that are successful will take charge of their futures and adapt. You can read about parachutes and what color they should be. Or, you might want to take a more direct approach. Take charge of your career and your life.

    Learn how to work with people. Businesses need people who can hold a conversation, empathize and communicate. Learn new skills. Take classes. Get into the growth areas of IT. Relocate, if needed. Document your value, and show the results of your teams' efforts. Remember, someone is after your job. Get hungry!