Archive for January, 2010

The real mobile workforce

A story of mine in this week’s Electronic News reports on a trend that many in the U.S. high-tech industry find disturbing. The latest 10-year jobs forecast from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that U.S. semiconductor manufacturing is going to lose 146,000 jobs, or more than 30 percent of its workforce, by 2018. That’s the second highest job loss of any industry, just behind retail department stores. It even beat out such passé industries as printing and newspaper publishing (projected to lose 95,000 and 81,000 jobs, respectively.)

The fact that manufacturing jobs are moving offshore is old news. On close examination, however, the BLS statistics indicate a flight of high-level jobs. Not only research and design engineering, but also top management functions, are leaving the country. In fact, in the management category of semiconductor and electronic component manufacturing, the BLS projects a 35-percent loss in the number of jobs. For chief executive officers in particular, the projection is 41 percent.

Some will quibble about how the BLS arrives at this forecast, but anecdotal information from a few executive recruiters backs up the trend. Tim O’Shea, group leader for the semiconductor industry practice at Heidrick & Struggles, has clients asking him to find executives willing to move offshore. “Management is being displaced,” agrees Al Delattre, global market managing director of technology at Korn/Ferry International.

The recruiters are alarmed about the trend. The semiconductor industry warns that the United States is losing its competitiveness. My livelihood is threatened. The industry that I’ve covered for 25 years might disappear from this country, taking with it a lot of the trade and technical publications that are my customers.

But if you take out the jingoism and think in terms of pure capitalism, it all makes perfect sense. Twenty years ago, manufacturing jobs moved to places where costs were lower and labor plentiful. Now, it looks like knowledge workers are going through the same transition. Anyone who’s read Thomas L. Friedman’s “The World is Flat” shouldn’t be surprised. The Internet and telecommunications technology make it possible to do many types of knowledge work from anywhere, so knowledge workers in low-cost areas are going to get a good portion of these jobs. Recognizing this, companies are starting to shift their knowledge workforce, not only by hiring offshore workers, but also by moving their current workers to low-cost regions. Last April, for example, I reported on IBM’s Project Match, whereby the company offered to hire laid-off North American workers for jobs in India and other low-cost countries.

The flight of U.S. executives will continue. After all, how many good reasons can you think of for keeping these executives in the United States? Most of the semiconductor industry’s customers are in Asia. Even if the CEO lives in the States, he spends most of his time traveling to visit customers, business partners and suppliers. Thanks to Wall Street’s meltdown, American finance is increasingly owned by foreigners. Plus, as semiconductor industry lobbyists love to point out, U.S. tax law and regulations make this country a less and less attractive place for business. In fact, one recruiter tells me that the executives of at least one chip company are thinking about moving its headquarters to Singapore because of the high costs of being a U.S.-based public corporation.

Maybe I should move, too. From a business point of view, there’s no reason to stay in this country. It’s not like I have to report to some green-eye-shaded editor wielding a pencil and shouting at the typesetter. I already work with all my clients via the phone, e-mail and Internet. Less and less of my work is actually printed on paper in a factory. It’s all online. U.S. newspapers and news agencies already outsource some of their journalism work to India. To remain competitive, I should move to a low-tax nation in a good climate with excellent Internet and telecommunications service.

The world is changing – quickly and dramatically. I don’t think there’s any stopping this. Businesses are recognizing this. Journalists, accountants and x-ray technicians are recognizing this. Government and industry leaders around the world would do well to recognize these forces and work with them, rather than raising fears and fomenting unrest about the offshoring of American jobs.

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Written by Tam Harbert on January 27th, 2010

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In Business, Public Policy category

Word Games

One of the most enjoyable aspects of journalism is the opportunity to talk to a broad spectrum of people. Not only talk, but ask them questions. And hear them answer. Or not.

It can be fascinating – and frustrating – when a source either can’t or won’t answer your questions. Rarely will he outright admit that – although I have been hung up on a few times. More typical is that he agrees to the interview but then engages you in a game of rhetorical gymnastics. It doesn’t take long into the interview before any good journalist can smell the rat. Here are a variety of ways people I’ve interviewed have avoided answering my questions:

The one-track mind: There’s the source that agrees to the interview, but ignores your questions and launches into promoting his agenda. Regardless of what question you ask, he’ll somehow bring it back around to the idea he wants to promote.

The weak-in-the-knees source: He’ll answer your questions, not with a yes or a no, but with a “maybe” or “it depends.” He doesn’t want to express any strong opinion or ultimate truth, for fear of offending somebody.

The motor-mouth:  After your first question, the source is off on his soapbox, talking his agenda, and you can’t get another question in before your time is up.

The down-the-rabbit-hole source:  These are sources who won’t or can’t dumb it down enough for the average Jane to understand. You ask how something works, and before you know it you’re deep in a PowerPoint presentation with complicated graphs and acronyms that make your head spin. I sometimes suspect that engineers secretly relish subjecting journalists to this treatment.

The back-asswords source: This is the guy who will not say something outright, but backs into it with a lot of double-negatives and passive construction. When you rephrase what he’s essentially saying in direct, active language, what he’s said becomes too bold and blatant, and he won’t admit that’s what he means. He can truthfully say, “that’s not what I said,” even if parsing through the meandering construction would show that’s what he means.

This recent exchange with the head of a technology industry trade association illustrates several of the above methods:

Journalist:  “The employment numbers look bad. This industry has lost 100,000 jobs in the last five years, and the government predicts that it will lose another 146,000 in the next decade. Do you agree with those government numbers?”

Source:  Assuming that the U.S. government takes some action that allows this industry to be competitive, then we’ll maintain our position, we won’t lose any more jobs.

Journalist:  So you’re saying that you disagree with those government statistics?

Source:  No, I’m saying that we can remain competitive.

Journalist:  But that’s assuming that the government will change its policies. Is there any evidence that the government is going to change its policies?

Source:  There’s always hope.

Journalist:  But given a lack of any changes, then you would agree that the industry will lose 146,000 jobs?

Source:  Assuming that the government has its statistics right.

Journalist:  Do you think the statistics are wrong?

Source:  I’m saying that this industry will not lose those jobs if we have the right policies in place so we can remain competitive.

Journalist :  Aaargh . . . . . !

Frustrating, and fascinating.

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Written by Tam Harbert on January 18th, 2010

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In Writing category

Health insurance: a challenge for freelancers

I have to admit that I haven’t been following the evolution of the health insurance reform legislation in Congress. That’s because it was making me sick. When I saw old people whipped into a frenzy by Republican extremists circulating misleading information about government death panels, I simply tuned out. It’s just not worth raising my blood pressure over. Literally. If I get sick, or even if I go to the doctor for my annual checkup, I pay out of my own pocket. At least, the first $2,600 of it every year.

That’s the deductible on the health insurance plan that I buy through the State of Maryland. You see, I have personal experience with a “public option,” and not by choice. When I went out on my own as a freelance writer, I could not buy private health insurance. It’s not that I could not afford it. It’s that no private insurer would sell me a policy. At any price.

No, I don’t have a terminal disease. I’ve never had cancer. Don’t have HIV. Or a heart condition. Or even high blood pressure. (For some reason, it’s incredibly low. A nurse once asked me if I was dead.) However, like anyone who’s been on the planet awhile, I do have a few conditions, none of which I consider particularly serious. But apparently the arthritis that I was diagnosed with in my mid 40s – just a few months before I left my job to freelance full time – is enough to make me a leper in the world of private health insurance. No one would touch me.

Maryland is one of 35 states that maintain “high-risk pools” for people who are denied private coverage. The premiums are typically higher than private insurance, unless you fall below a certain income, at which point the rates are partially subsidized. The system has worked well for me so far. I pay my premiums and also contribute regularly to a health savings account, which I can tap into to pay for my own healthcare costs up to the amount of the deductible. Because I pay out of my own pocket, I make more careful choices about what healthcare services to use. I’ve found some helpful sites on the Web (like http://www.healthcarebluebook.com) that tell me what the going rate is for certain services, like x-rays.

I’m grateful, and lucky, that Maryland has such a plan. Freelancers in states without high-risk pools have tough choices. They could become a part-time barista at Starbucks, a company that provides insurance even to part-time employees. They could change their marital or dependency status. (Recently, a friend’s 23-year-old daughter left a job and thought she would buy private insurance, only to find that – because of a melanoma removed from her leg 10 years ago – she was denied. She and her boyfriend moved up the wedding by a year so she could get onto his policy.) They could return to the full-time, traditional workforce.  Or, if they are healthy and feel lucky, they could risk going without insurance.

Whether through a state-run program or by manipulating the private system, people like us are getting by, at least some of us are. Anti-reform zealots complain about the government rationing healthcare. The fact is, healthcare is already rationed – by big companies whose obligation is to make profits, not protect the health of citizens. If we don’t get meaningful reform now, we will in a few years, as a larger percent of the population experiences the arbitrariness and unfairness of the current system in America.

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Written by Tam Harbert on January 11th, 2010

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In Business, Healthcare, Writing category

Farewell, newsprint . . .

postmasthead

At the start of a new year, I have high hopes about making regular visits to the gym, eating healthier, filing information as I receive it instead of letting it stack up on me. But one change I’m making is not one of hope, but rather resignation: I’m cancelling my subscription to The Washington Post.

As a journalist, I feel like a traitor. But I can no longer justify receiving a paper that I spend five minutes glancing through, that makes my fingers black with ink and that takes time and effort to stack up and put out into the recycle bin each week. In fact, if I did the math, I bet I’d find that I spend more time moving that paper around the house each week than reading it.

Increasingly, when I do read it, I’m disappointed. Some of the front-page news is already out of date. The copy editing is abysmal – I usually find several errors on the front page alone. A few months ago the Post moved what used to be a passable business section into the A section. After they did that I watched as the business coverage languished and practically disappeared. The only business coverage still worth reading is Steven Pearlstein’s excellent weekly column. There’s little reason to keep receiving even the Sunday edition. The Sunday book section is no more. Even the weekly TV guide is useless, now that we all have digital guides on our TVs.

I compared the online edition – which is free – to today’s Post and found everything I get in the paper version and more (well, except for the coupons). Plus, I can do a search for topics without having to wade through pages of dirty newsprint. Try as I might, this journalist simply cannot find a good reason to keep my subscription for daily home delivery of a major national newspaper.

I will continue to be a faithful consumer of news, but not of paper.

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Written by Tam Harbert on January 4th, 2010

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In Newspapers category