Saving Your Job

Fortune columnist Anne Fischer discusses the threat of the global economy.

If you think jobs are fleeing this country now, just wait awhile. So far, according to the best industry estimates, only about 5% of U.S. IT jobs have been shipped to India, New Zealand, and Eastern Europe. But by 2007 at least 23% will have gone. Not a techie? Don't get cocky. IT folks may just be the canary in the coal mine. Notes a reader named Hans: "There is almost no limit on the technology that can take jobs overseas. Anyone in any field who has ever thought, 'Gee, I could just as easily do this job from home,' or who has smiled at the thought of working from a laptop on a beach should understand that his or her replacement 'could just as easily do this job' from Bangalore." Gulp.

Which brings us to what Bill Mitchell, a Silicon Valley veteran who's now CEO of a software company called Firepad, wishes all of us (techies or not) would learn. It's the old Darwinian tune: Adapt or die. "The answer for programmers, as for anyone in a competitive business, is to specialize to the point that you offer greater productivity, or change careers," he says. "Years ago I did the latter. I bit the bullet and learned new skills and got out of programming, and now I'm the outsourcer rather than the outsourcee." Your mama must be proud, Bill, but not everyone can become an outsourcer.

The other option: Innovate. Don't expect that your long experience will save you (it won't)—and don't rely on Internet sites to find your next job (they won't). Mitchell has watched his friends' fortunes rise and fall—haven't we all?—and says this: "A 1988 MIT grad with more than a dozen issued patents and 15 years of experience at Oracle and Siebel hasn't worked in over two years." Sound familiar? But at the same time another friend—a 1989 Caltech grad with a security clearance, architect-level database expertise, and 13 years of experience—saw three (count 'em, three) different jobs shipped abroad, by three different employers, in five years. His response? He developed new programming methods, "which allowed him to write certain specialized applications about eight times faster than his typical Bangalore competitor," says Mitchell. "Now he has a cost advantage. But only in those narrow areas." And, alas, probably not for too long.

Some people think natural selection no longer acts on humans because our technology has allowed us to escape it. That's somewhat true, biologically (although we would still be affected by rapid massive environmental changes) but we still deal with Darwinian forces in other aspects of life, like economics. Maybe technology can save us from these forces too, in the long run. That is where I put my faith.

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