Ronil Hira is an assistant professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology. A former engineer, he's also chair of the workforce policy committee at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), one of the largest professional societies in the world. In recent months, he's distinguished himself as an eloquent speaker on the offshoring issue, one whose opinions aren't easily thrown into one political bucket or another. In a talk with Fast Company's Jennifer Reingold, he sounds off on the human costs of offshoring.
Fast Company: Is offshoring a good thing or a bad thing? Or is that too simplistic of a question?
Ronil Hira: I'm not against offshoring. I hope that this could be something that transforms and brings lots of people into the modern world. That's within our national interest, but at the same time, I don't think the way it's being done is responsible. Companies are going to do this because it's within their interest. In certain ways it's fine, but if they don't address the negative impacts, they're not being honest. The [real] question is how to mitigate the bad sides of offshoring. The people who say it's all good are those that have a lot of influence and power and haven't done their jobs.
FC: There have been wildly varying numbers on the potential job losses from offshoring. Some people think the coming retirement of the baby boomers will make the whole debate pointless, while others have talked about millions of jobs leaving our shores forever. Where do you fall on the spectrum?
Hira: People are being displaced. This is the absolute worst employment situation for tech workers ever. The reality is that those jobs may not be going at a 1:1 ratio, but many are being destroyed and will never come back in the U.S. The question is, what do you do with the idle human capital here?
FC: Has anyone offered a workable solution?
Hira: One of the problems is that companies are very secretive. I just don't know what companies are doing because they're not willing to speak out publicly. Some leaked IBM documents created a potential backlash since it came out that they were forcing employees through carrot and stick approaches to train their foreign replacements. It's a pretty humiliating experience. If they could be redeployed, they would quit and not worry about severance. You sometimes [hear people] saying that employees need more education, retraining, and such on a superficial level. No one really says "How does this really work?" How do you retrain an engineer to become a nurse? Someone who's 45 years old, with a master's, how realistic is that?
FC: Whose responsibility is it to address the retraining issue?
Hira: My belief is that the government listens to people in industry. [Nothing will happen] until [industry] starts to push and say they're serious about helping the displaced. If companies don't want to, I don't see any action from the government.
FC: A related, and equally controversial, issue is the debate over H1B visas, the visa category given to foreigners working in the U.S. Some people feel these visas are being abused by companies who bring in much lower-paid foreign workers temporarily. Where do you stand?
Hira: This is another problem with the dialogue. If you're saying anything critical about H1B visas, [you're seen as] anti-immigration. The consensus is to bring the most talented people from around the world and keep them here. The technology transfer profession is often called a body contact sport. On the other hand, American workers should have preference over foreign workers for positions. If you can find someone here they should fill the job before you import people. My own research leads me to believe that I don' t think the H1B and L1 are being used correctly. To me, the answer is that the law is not meeting the objectives, so we need to reform the law. Of the proposals out there, the one from senators Dodd and Johnson is the most sensible one.
FC: Are there secondary costs to offshoring that should be addressed?
Hira: If you start to think about what most economists think has driven the economy, it's been technology jobs. As we move those offshore, to what extent does it have an affect on innovation? Innovation is a very messy thing that does not adhere very nicely to our classical view of economics. Companies are often started by people that work in other companies. Ross Perot used to be an IBM employee. Tom Siebel worked for Oracle. Is it a zero sum game? No, but it's something we certainly need to think about.
A version of this article appeared in the Table of Contents - April 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.