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.