At a conference more than 10 years ago, Carol L. Covin predicted that technology jobs would never be moved offshore. "It's hard enough to explain what you want to a programmer down the hall, much less overseas," she recalls saying. Her view was captured in a book by a colleague.
"It's humbling to read your own words 10 years later and find out how wrong you are," Covin said at a meeting of the Baltimore chapter of the Association for Women in Computing last Thursday in Columbia. Covin stood at the front of a classroom before half a dozen women techies who munched on cherry tomatoes and carrot sticks while listening to her presentation on "How to Weather the Offshore Programming Tsunami."
Her new, revised prediction: Prospects for most Washington area technology workers are bright -- if they're willing to make some adjustments and stretch a bit.
The frenzied rhetoric about technology jobs going overseas has quieted in recent months. While doomsday predictions for the domestic tech industry have subsided, there's clearly a trend toward exporting some jobs. That's pushing some local techies to make changes in the way they prepare for the future.
Covin, author of "20 Minutes From Home," a book on the best computing jobs in America, is no crusader against sending jobs overseas. Quite the contrary. She founded OSITA, a Bristow start-up that helps U.S. companies hire technology workers in South America. Hiring such workers to write code and provide telephone tech support makes economic sense, she told the women at the meeting, but that's not true of every tech position.
Jobs that require hands-on interaction with people, such as project management and technical troubleshooting, are likely to stay in the United States, Covin said, as are sensitive tasks such as network architecture and computer security. And on any project for which requirements and solutions change quickly, she said, "the idea of handing off to someone overseas is not going to work because it's too high a risk."
Covin said many local tech workers have the strongest protection of all against the export of their jobs: a government security clearance that cut-rate workers abroad can't get. The audience nodded knowingly.
Natalie G. Stockard, 35, a network analyst who attended the meeting, said she constantly keeps an eye out for a job that might help her get a security clearance. "A company that says 'you can do this job while you wait for a clearance' -- you'll kiss their feet. You'll basically clean toilets to stay on staff," she said.
While Stockard thinks the threat of offshore outsourcing is real, especially for entry-level workers, her biggest concern is the tendency for companies to hire techies on contracts rather than as full-time employees. Stockard has been a contractor for all five years she has been in the industry, which has provided little job security and minimal benefits. To better protect herself, Stockard has begun to study network security.
Pat Malarkey, a computer programmer with more than 20 years of experience, said she has never felt so insecure about her career. Since she was laid off in April, the 44-year-old Centreville woman has landed only one interview, and she thinks offshore outsourcing may be partly to blame. "The thing that concerns me is that it's taking me longer to find a job this time than the last time that I looked," she said. To make herself a more appealing candidate, Malarkey has been taking classes in the latest programming methods, and she has hired a career coach and a resume distribution agency.
Those who train and place workers urge them to diversify their skills.
Recruiters at HireStrategy, a Reston staffing firm, have learned to assuage the fears of techies who feel threatened by offshore outsourcing. The trend is less dire than many of them fear, said Paul Villella, chief executive. But the firm also tells out-of-work techies that they may have to make some uncomfortable adjustments to gain an edge in the job market.
"You've got to move them beyond pure, narrow programming. Those skills are still the key thing to get the door open . . . but the big differentiator is the ability to translate that skill into something higher, being able to communicate it," Villella said. That may seem obvious, but it can be jarring to techies accustomed to a quiet life of coding in a cubicle.
Stratford University in Falls Church has combined many elements of its information technology program into a minor for its business administration program. "The day of the pure technologist is over," said Richard R. Shurtz II, Stratford's president. "Now what you need are people who know how to use technology to maintain a competitive advantage."
Lloyd J. Griffiths, dean of George Mason University's School of Information Technology and Engineering, said he's concerned that there could soon be a shortage of trained technical professionals in the United States. In the fall of 2002, the school's computer science program had 773 students. This year, there are 557 undergraduates in the program.
"That decline -- I don't see any steepening in it as a result of outsourcing. There is something else going on that I don't really understand yet," Griffiths said. An information technology program GMU created in 2002 to prepare students to become project managers and analysts has been popular, but it doesn't teach students the nuts-and-bolts coding that makes technology work.
Computer specialist and software engineering jobs are still expected to be among the fastest-growing occupations through 2012, according to the Labor Department. Griffiths said company executives often ask how they can hire more of his students.
"The demand is really increasing and the supply side is the side that's just not there, and I don't know what we're going to do about it, frankly," he said. "What are we going to do about it?"
Ellen McCarthy writes about the local tech scene every other Thursday. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.