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Tom’s Journal: American Jobs in India

March 9, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST


TERENCE SMITH: Tom Friedman’s latest trip took him to Bangalore, India, where he looked into the issue of outsourced jobs. Tom, welcome home.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Good to be back.

TERENCE SMITH: Those are outsourced U.S. jobs.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Yes. Fortunately, mine can’t be outsourced, Terry, but a lot of others can be, and that’s really what I discovered on this trip. We visited, you know, everything from radiological labs that are reading the X-rays done by big American hospitals to accounting firms that are now using Indian CPAs to do your taxes, to cartoons and game companies that now have Indian artists drawing for American games and cartoons.

You know, you know you’re in Bangalore, you know you’re in the Silicon Valley of India, Terry, when you go to play golf and the caddy on the first tee says you can either aim at the Microsoft building or the IBM building. You know you’re at Bangalore when you see the Pizza Hut advertisement says “gigabytes of taste.” And you know you’re at Bangalore when you see street signs sponsored by Texas Instruments. This is one hot town, and it’s going to … it’s producing a lot of energy, and it’s going to be a real challenge to American workers.

TERENCE SMITH: Why are these jobs going to India, and why to Bangalore?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Why to India? Why is India so well positioned for this? It’s a lot of reasons that have come together. One is very simple. You have a huge number of educated people who speak English. You have a culture, also, where being a doctor or an engineer is absolutely the top of the pyramid. It’s amazing. You go down any side street in Bangalore, and there seems to be an engineering school, you know, or some kind of software programming classroom.

Another oddity: Their day is exactly the opposite of ours. You can work all day in America, then outsource all the stuff you need done overnight to India. They work all day in India, and send it back the next day. And so a lot of these things have converged. And then there’s a couple of just accidents, Terry.

One is the dot-com bubble and huge overinvestment in dot-com stocks in America. You know what it did? It laid all these pipes, these fiber optic cables around the world, and created all this excess capacity, which made it easy — not only easy, almost cost-free — to transmit data from America to India. And then there was something called Y2K.

Y2K comes along, and you need all these software programmers basically to go through code, to see if the date is going to be a problem in whatever software program you’re running. Well, what country in the world had that many programmers easily available, cheaply available? And once the Indians did that, they said, by the way, could we do this for you? Maybe you’d like your taxes done also.

TERENCE SMITH: You mentioned that they speak English, and yet they have a wonderful little phenomenon there that you wrote about called the “accent neutralization class.” What’s going on there?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Accent neutralization class is very popular in Bangalore today, you know, because you have all … a whole less sort of sophisticated side of this phenomenon are the call centers. Young men and women basically selling credit cards, tracing your lost luggage on Delta Airlines, and also providing tech support for big American computer companies from IBM to Microsoft and whatnot.

Well, these are all put together in these call centers and when you pick up the phone and dial that tech number, a young Indian answers. But they want to make sure that you’re going to understand their accent so they teach them or put them through accent neutralization courses where they learn to roll their R’s and to soften their T’s.

TERENCE SMITH: We have, in fact, a tape which you’ve brought back, shot by New York Times television, for a documentary you’re working on what will appear on the Discovery Channel with a little clip of what goes on in an accent neutralization class. So let’s take a look at it.

INSTRUCTOR: All right, class. I want you to take out your books and I’m going to give you a passage. Remember, the first day I told you that the Americans flat the “tuh” sound. You know, it sounds like an almost “duh” sound, not keep it crisp and clear like the British. So I would not say “Betsy bought a bit of better butter” or “insert a quarter in a meter.” But they would say “insert a quarder in the meder,” or “‘Beddy bought a bit of bedder budder.”

So I’m just going to read it out for you once, and then we’ll read it together. All right? “Thirty little turtles in a bottle of bottled water. A bottle of bottled water held 30 little turtles. It didn’t matter that each turtle had a round metal ladle in order to get a little bit of noodles.” All right, who’s going to read first?

MAN: Thirty little turtles in a bottle of bottled water.

WOMAN: A bottle of bottled water held 30 little turtles.

MAN: It didn’t matter that each turtle had a rattle … a metal ladle.

MAN: In order to get a little bit of noodles, our total delicacy.

MAN: The problem was that they were … sorry.

MAN: The turtle … the little turtles are always lost because every time they thought about grappling with a….

INSTRUCTOR: Grappling.

MAN: Grappling with a haggler of turtles.

WOMAN: Grappling with a haggler of turtles, their little turtle minds boggled, and they only caught a little bit of noodle.

SPOKESPERSON: Good. Very good. ( Applause )

TERENCE SMITH: That looks like fun, for one thing, and yet the teacher had … really had the accent down.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: She had it down. She also does British accents, American accents. That was actually for a Canadian call center. They were actually working on a sort of flat North American Canadian accent. And while, you know, the whole thing is fun to watch, there’s also something serious behind it, Terry, because if you looked at that class, most of them are women.

These are young college grads, most of these kids, who aren’t engineers. They could never get jobs, not for $200 to $300 a month, which is the starting pay in a call center without this opportunity. And what this has given them is really a chance to grab the first rung of the ladder. A lot of them on the side are studying for MBAs or other college degrees. Some of them are now supporting their family. Many of them, their starting salary is more than their parents’ retiring salary.

TERENCE SMITH: But what do you say, Tom, having made this trip, to the American whose job, the equivalent job, has been lost to the airline ticket counter agent who is out of work?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: I mean, it’s a very serious question. And I think one can only say two things. One is that there is simply no question that outsourcing our, you know, commodity jobs through places like India or grunt work functions that tend to be low-prestige, low-paying here and become high-prestige, high-paying there is, at the macro sense, good for our economy, because what it allows us to do is focus on what we do best, which is innovation. That’s the macro answer.

But my micro answer is, I feel your pain. I think we as a society have an obligation to public policy and tax programs and subsidies and wage insurance and health care to find a way to cushion people who are in white collar jobs, just as we did — or tried to, to some extent — with blue collar, so they are not going to get steamrolled by this phenomena. We’re talking about 4 million jobs that will be outsourced to India probably over the next ten years. And that’s not an insignificant number.

Now, many more will be lost to technological change, whatever, but I think we have to take it seriously with a real public policy response, but what we must not do, Terry, is put up walls that will slow us down and deprive us of what we do best, which is to come up with new ideas, bring them to market, and sell them to the rest of the world.

TERENCE SMITH: You were there at a time, just recently, at a time when there is a real rapprochement between India and Pakistan settling some very long-standing differences, or working on it anyway. Is it related to the economic uplift of all these jobs?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Directly related, because India now is part of a global supply chain. These American companies — GE, Microsoft, American Express — have moved parts of their back rooms to India, to Bangalore. Now, comes along the India-Pakistan crisis — I’ll tell you exactly what happened. These American companies got on the phone and told their Indian back rooms, “Friends, we’re going to have to look for an alternative for you. You don’t want us to be looking for an alternative, and we don’t want to be looking for an alternative.”

When you’re part of a global supply chain like that, you can’t say, “Oh, we’re going to take a week off to fight a war. We’ll see you.” You will shut down whole major corporations. Well, that has percolated up. And what’s most interesting to the Indian leadership — and this is definitely driving the rapprochement — it’s also got the Pakistanis looking, saying, “Jeez, the Indians, they’re doing well at this. And what are we? We’re just like them, too.”

But even more, Terry, you know, you talk to these young kids like in that accent neutralization class, I would ask them all, “So what do you think of the Pakistan crisis?” “Oh, forget about it. We’ve got better things to do.” And that’s where, you know, this cease-fire brought to you not by General Powell, but by General Electric. We bring good things to life. So there is a geopolitical spin-off to this that we also have to keep in mind.

TERENCE SMITH: Tom Friedman, terrific as always. Thank you.