Friday, April 21, 2006

Out Castes

I had a close encounter this past week with outsourcing, that peculiar phenomenon in which a call or e-mail requesting assistance is answered by someone six to eight time zones away whose English is a second or third language.
It was a simple billing question for an online company. After waiting in an electronic queue of some 60 or so souls, I received an e-mail message that said:
"I feel so lucky and honored that I have received your inquiry. I will try my hardest to sincerely provide the information you require."
That was my first clue that I was no longer in the good old US of A where the response would have been "Whazzup?" and I would have been refered to as "Dude."
All thing considered, the e-mail conversation went well, despite the fact that both of us communicated in a sort of shorthand English.
It's not my first brush with this sort of thing. Call the Los Angeles Times about a delivery problem and you'll get someone who has never been west of the Mississippi. A question about a laptop computer will send you half a world away.
There appears to be no limit to outsourcing.
For example, in Great Britain, blood and urine samples from National Health Service patients are sent to India for pathology tests to cut costs. The non-emergency requirements of pathology tests are conducted at the clinical lab setup at Mumbai, India. The 24-hour lab conducts the test and the results are uploaded into the special network linked to the NHS. The NHS hospitals in the UK get the reports in 24 hours.
Simple enough, but now there is talk of sending patients overseas for medical procedures.
On a lighter note, McDonald's is experimenting with a program that allows workers at call centers to fill orders placed by customers at drive-throughs. In a New York Times story, a young woman in Santa Maria, Calif., is seen busily filling orders from Honolulu to Gulfport, Miss. And some Carl's Jr.'s restaurants are going to try it next.
Even Reuters, the European news service, is hiring journalists in Bangalore, India, to do basic financial reporting on 3,000 small to medium-size American companies.
What's next? Prescription refills? 911 calls? Dial-a-Prayer?
All of this has set off a highly emotional debate surrounding the sending of skilled jobs overseas in the interest of saving a buck.
The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that the volume of offshore outsourcing will increase by 30 to 40 percent a year for the next five years. Forrester Research estimates that 3.3 million white-collar jobs will move overseas by 2015. According to projections, the hardest hit sectors will be financial services and information technology.
Scary numbers to be sure but some economists argue that most jobs will remain unaffected altogether: close to 90 percent of jobs in the United States require geographic proximity. Such jobs include everything from retail and restaurants to marketing and personal care -- services that have to be produced and consumed locally, so outsourcing them overseas is not an option. Amid all this, something odd is occuring.
India, the largest recipient of outsourced jobs employing approximately 400,000 people, is facing a crisis: It is running out of skilled people to take the jobs.
The country is facing a shortfall of almost half a million workers, threatening its status as the world's "back office."
How can a country of 1.2 billion people come up short of workers? According to one report, it's quality, not quantity. Bluntly put, many of the more than 3 million college graduates churned out every year are considered mediocre.
And filling the gap are Americans and Europeans who are flocking to India to take the jobs, in large part because their mastery of English is a huge asset.
Some experts in India see the need for 120,000 more workers in the next five years who speak English and European languages. And they're looking to North and South American and Europe to fill those jobs.
Which means we may have come full circle. Will India soon be outsourcing jobs to the United States?

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