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Panel: Sharpen skills to keep U.S. tech edge

Seizing on the latest technologies will let U.S. information technology workers and the U.S. economy overall guard against the detrimental effects of globalization, a panel of experts says.

Seizing on the latest technologies will allow U.S. information technology workers and the U.S. economy overall to guard against the detrimental effects of globalization, a panel of experts said Friday.

Speakers on the panel, organized by the advocacy group Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) and held in Boston, said that the rapidly changing nature of the technology means that IT professionals need to invest regularly in training, whether they are employed or job hunting. People should also be prepared to shift careers. The experts also called on the U.S. government to invest in education and give tax breaks to American companies that invest in research and development facilities in the United States.

The move to outsource tasks, such as software development or running corporate call centers, to offshore consultants is inevitable because companies will always look for lower-cost options, panelists said. The panelists included representatives from outsourcing giants EDS and India-based Tata Consultancy Services.

Outsourcing is expected to accelerate and expand into other service sectors beyond IT. Research firm Gartner recently predicted that by the end of 2004, one in every 10 jobs at United States IT companies and at companies that provide IT services will move to emerging markets. It also predicted that one out of every 20 jobs in companies' own IT departments will move offshore by late next year.

With outsourcing comes lost jobs, lost tax revenue from laid-off employees, and potential security problems, particularly in the handling of sensitive government data, said Bruce Mehlman, assistant secretary for technology policy at the U.S. Department of Commerce.

"There continues to rage a debate on the implications (of outsourcing)," Mehlman said. "There are concerns that as this trend moves up the value chain, it's not just sweat shops, not simply just call centers, but increasingly higher-end work."

There have long been vocal opponents to outsourcing, both in the IT industry and in other industries, such as manufacturing. But the prolonged downturn in technology, leading to many lost IT jobs, has exacerbated the backlash. In just one example of protests against the use of offshore labor, about 50 picketers demonstrated outside a conference in San Francisco earlier this month.

But regulating the IT industry to ensure that jobs are not shipped overseas is not in the best interest of U.S. companies, panel members argued. Putting up protectionist barriers could save jobs in the near term but ultimately make the global market for IT labor less efficient and U.S. companies less competitive, according to Jeff Lande, vice president of the ITAA.

Instead, U.S. companies and universities should focus on leading-edge technology to take advantage of emerging opportunities, they said.

"We don't know the new technologies that will come (but) they will come, they will always come. Our challenge is to make sure that we are positioned in terms of our educational system, in terms of our economy to jump on board those technologies," said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at forecasting firm Global Insight. "We did it spectacularly in the 1990s and there is no reason we cannot do it again."

The current administration is trying to foster development of new technologies with tax incentives for research and development, measures to protect intellectual property, and a plan to reform the U.S. Patent Office to ensure rapid and high-quality patents, Mehlman said.

Panelists also stressed the importance of training for both employed and laid-off workers. Individuals can get up to speed on the latest technologies, such as security, by taking classes at local colleges. But at the same time, they should focus on core engineering skills, which will allow them to adapt to new requirements.

"There is no safe expertise and there is no safe skill," Mehlman said. "It's incumbent upon individuals as well as companies trying to maintain their work force to constantly learn."