Outsourcing at Home

By William Raspberry
Monday, May 23, 2005

First my Palm Pilot, then my Internet connection, went bad. And as a result, I spent a depressing number of hours on the telephone, talking to "technical assistance." The overwhelming portion of that time was with technical workers in places such as India, Pakistan and the Philippines, who (let it be said) were no better or worse than the tech-help people at the places that sold me the equipment in the first place.

Naturally I started to grouch about the "outsourcing" of all those jobs that might have gone to Americans.

Then someone said something to me that has me rethinking the whole subject of outsourcing. "We're outsourcing a lot of jobs right here in America -- right here in Washington, D.C.," he said. "All our low-skill jobs -- from driving taxicabs to housecleaning to construction labor -- are increasingly being done by immigrants."

Before I could protest that he was suggesting that jobless Americans ought to be content with poorly paid stoop labor and other work scarcely above the good old days of sharecropping, he noted that it isn't only the dreadful jobs that are subject to domestic outsourcing.

A pair of recent statistics makes the point:

At the end of 1998 the District of Columbia had 613,500 civilian jobs, excluding self-employment. At the end of last year, the number was up to 672,000, putting the District among the top job-creating jurisdictions in the United States. But the unemployment rate for D.C. residents was 7.2 percent for 2003, 8.2 percent for 2004 -- and appears to be climbing still.

It's clear that a lot of jobs created in the city are being outsourced to commuters from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania -- with under a third of the jobs created in the city held by people who live here. And because Congress won't allow the District to have a commuter tax, revenue is being outsourced along with jobs.

Both kinds of outsourcing hurt Americans and, at least in the nation's capital, arguably hurt black residents worst. But it doesn't follow that hurting black people is the motivation of those who outsource work -- internally or abroad. Indeed, focusing on race may make solutions harder to find.

Overseas outsourcing generally has two explanations. The first is that competent and reliable overseas employees are willing to work for far less than Americans would demand for the same job -- less than the minimum wage Americans would have to be paid. The second, which applies to domestic outsourcing as well, is the increasing difficulty of finding competent and reliable workers at home.

I don't know if there is a non-legislative way to deal with the cost-driven side. If manufacturers, telecommunicators, or providers and servicers of technical equipment can save a serious buck by exporting work, they'll do it until they are made to stop. (It's worth noting that you don't always have to look abroad to find cheap labor, as the Wal-Mart example makes clear.) But to the extent that the local unavailability of competent and reliable workers is the problem, there is something we can do about it. Indeed, that something is being done by thousands upon thousands of immigrants, who are taking every advantage to gain the skills and experience they need to get a toehold in the U.S. economy.

The largely immigrant-driven scramble for technical skills has made Northern Virginia Community College the biggest institution of higher education in Virginia and, with 62,000 enrollees, the second-largest multi-campus community college in the nation. As one young man put it, "This country is heaven for immigrants with a skill."

Meanwhile, the District's Washington Technical Institute, which used to provide the same sort of technical skills, is now a stepchild of the University of the District of Columbia.

But it begins even before that. Shameful numbers of young people in Washington and elsewhere leave high school with neither diplomas nor marketable skills. They want work, but they offer little to make themselves attractive to employers. And after a few years of joblessness and criminal activity into which the jobless are often tempted, they have even less.

Even legitimate self-employment is either unavailable or not considered available, which amounts to the same thing. The mom-and-pop convenience stores that were run by Jews a generation ago, then sold in turn to Chinese, Korean and other Asian entrepreneurs, are now increasingly likely to be run by Ethiopians.

We've outsourced that one, too.


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