Can you say 'offshore' anymore?

Politically charged phrase disappearing as firms cook up new terms to describe sending work to cheaper labor markets.

Ed Frauenheim
Ed Frauenheim Former Staff Writer, News
Ed Frauenheim covers employment trends, specializing in outsourcing, training and pay issues.
2 min read
Euphemism is alive and well again when it comes to axing jobs in America.

For much of the past two years, the business world has been happy to trumpet the benefits of sending technology work and other tasks offshore to lower-cost labor markets such as India and Russia. But as labor advocates and politicians have fumed over the "offshoring" trend, businesses are changing their terms, if not their tune.

It's not too different from the way corporations in an earlier era employed softer words for "layoffs," like "downsizing" and "rightsizing." "Offshoring" is giving way to phrases such as "co-sourcing" and "global sourcing," said John McCarthy, analyst with Forrester Research.

"It's all part of everyone going into the offshore witness protection program," McCarthy quipped. "They're changing the title, but the activity is the same."

Earlier this year, McCarthy reiterated his view that more than 3 million U.S. services jobs will go offshore between 2000 and 2015. And he bumped up his estimate of near-term lost jobs by some 240,000, meaning he expects a total of 830,000 positions to have moved offshore by 2005.

Defenders of offshoring say it ultimately benefits the U.S. economy and U.S. workers, and that protectionist measures would result in lower economic growth and higher unemployment.

Critics respond that offshoring costs U.S. workers jobs and threatens the country's long-term technology leadership.

The exact scope of offshoring has been hard to assess. A recent report by Congress' research arm concluded that government data offer limited insight into the extent of offshoring and its effects.

Meanwhile, companies involved with sending work offshore have come up with alternative labels for what they do--labels that avoid touching the latest political third rail. For example, India-based Infosys Technologies touts its "Global Delivery Model." When serving a U.S. client, some Infosys employees work at the company's site. But the majority of Infosys' employees are in India.

IBM, which has been expanding its operations in India, has moved away from the related term "outsourcing." Outsourcing refers to a business farming tasks out to companies like IBM--which may complete the work abroad. Big Blue avoided using the word "outsourcing" in announcing deals with two energy companies and with two German banks that all involve IBM taking over certain operations.

Big Blue described some of the deals as "business process transformation services" agreements and said the phrase refers to an emerging market category.

Corporate language transformations related to offshoring rile populist commentator Jim Hightower. "Excellent news, Americans! U.S. corporations say that they are no longer 'offshoring' our middle-class jobs," Hightower wrote in an essay published Friday. "Does this mean that greedheaded CEOs are no longer shipping our manufacturing, professional, and high-tech jobs to India, Pakistan, Russia and other low-wage centers? Of course not. It simply means they no longer say the word 'offshoring.'"