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The Nation

Outsourcing Ax Falls Hard on Tech Workers

As the slump persists, some train their low-cost replacements before being shown the door.

May 30, 2004|Warren Vieth | Times Staff Writer

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The global economy finally caught up with Cliff Cotterill.

On Friday, the software engineer drove his pickup truck to Building 54 at Agilent Technologies Inc. in Santa Clara. He made his way through the warren of partitions to his cubicle. Then he turned in his laptop computer and employee badge and said goodbye to 25 years of his life.

There were no parting ceremonies, no official farewells. His department had held a big lunch in August, when he and others were scheduled for termination. Cotterill was given a brief extension.

But this weekend, when he was only 11 weeks away from being eligible for early retirement, the ax finally fell. Cotterill, 54, joined the growing ranks of computer professionals who so recently occupied a prized position in the U.S. economy but are now seeing their jobs disappear -- many outsourced to foreigners.

In the months leading up to his layoff, Cotterill was assigned to work alongside programmers from India who are taking over tasks formerly done by Americans, a process his company calls Knowledge Transfer, or KT.

Just a few years ago, his profession was at its peak in this country. An increasing reliance on computers, the takeoff of the Internet and the Y2K reprogramming boom put U.S. software specialists such as Cotterill in high demand. Their pay and prestige rose commensurately.

His fate is emblematic of what has happened to many in his profession. With the crash of the technology sector and overseas outsourcing, thousands of U.S. jobs are disappearing and salaries are under pressure. The late-'90s sense of well-being is diminished.

Experts disagree over how much of the job loss and salary slippage can be attributed to outsourcing, but most say it has clearly been a factor.

"It is unprecedented, the turn of fortune that has occurred in the high-tech industry," said Marcus Courtney, president of the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers in Seattle. "Less than five years ago, we were talking of adding hundreds of thousands of new employees every year in this industry.... We've gone from that to widespread job losses and stagnant wages and benefits.

"The reason it's happening is companes are exporting jobs overseas to increase their profits and not creating jobs here in the U.S."

This growing class of dispossessed and demoralized tech workers is creating new economic and political fault lines. For the first time, large numbers of technical professionals are losing their jobs to lower-paid counterparts in other countries, a phenomenon once associated mainly with blue-collar factory work. Some remain unemployed or underemployed for long periods, and some are beginning to challenge policies that give rein to globalization.

The practice of requiring U.S. workers to train their replacements has become a flashpoint in the intensifying debate over "offshoring" jobs to other countries and the use of temporary visas by foreign nationals who come here to learn their employers' systems.

Critics have denounced the process as inhumane, and some members of Congress are trying to curtail it.

Agilent executives declined to discuss the specifics of Cotterill's termination. They sympathize with employees who lose their jobs, they said, and do their best to ease the transition by providing competitive severance packages.

"It's been very, very difficult for everyone at Agilent to see friends and colleagues leave the company," said Jan Copes, spokeswoman for the company's information technology, or IT, department, where Cotterill worked on in-house projects to support Agilent's infrastructure.

Outsourcing is one element of a broad transformation undertaken to return the company to profitability and position it for growth, Copes said, and the training of replacements is a necessary part of the process.

For Cotterill, who worked as an art critic and aerial photographer before getting in on the ground floor of the technology boom, the politics of globalization have become personal.

"I guess I wasn't paying attention when it was affecting other trades or professions," he said. "It's probably been going on for manufacturing and electronics and cars and steel all along. But it's not until it hits home that you really pay attention."

Growing up in the East Bay suburb of Castro Valley, Cotterill felt torn between art and science. In high school, he considered becoming an astronomer. At UC Davis, he majored in fine arts.

His early jobs were editing at Artweek magazine, production hand for Rolling Stone, disc jockey for a San Mateo soul station and sole proprietor of Cliff Cotterill Photography, for which he used his pilot's license to produce aerial landscapes to sell at art galleries and craft shows.

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