Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Graphic Designers, You ARE Replaceable: WSJ

REMEMBER THIS POST? Perhaps at the time it sounded paranoid, perhaps even colored in tone by my looming layoff.

Think again. Consult, if you can, the March 28, 2007 Wall Street Journal. The lead story, "Pain From Free Trade Spurs Second Thoughts," bears grim news and a shocking statistic, if true. Princeton economist and former Federal Reserve board vice chairman Alan S. Blinder has shifted his view on the dubious benefits that free trade might bring America, particularly the cost to U.S. knowledge workers. To quote the article:
Mr. Blinder . . . remains an implacable opponent of tariffs and trade barriers. But now he is saying loudly that a new industrial revolution — communication technology that allows services to be delivered electronically from afar — will put as many as 40 million American jobs at risk of being shipped out of the country in the next decade or two.
Next to this lede is the following table, lovingly recreated by Yours Truly, and the stat I described as shocking.

Worried yet? I sure as hell am.

My career was much on my mind today. I took my final personal day (which I couldn't redeem for cash) to launch my job hunt. We had been given a month of consultation with a career transition and coaching firm, and I called them this morning to set up my first appointment. My journey there begins this coming Monday, and I won't even have to go into the city, as they have an office not 12 minutes away. It should make attending several meetings there, if necessary, far easier. (Though I will miss the city.)

I also registered with the creative-field division of a major recruiting firm, with whom my supervisor had made contact. I called to speak with the guy she was using, only to find that he was no longer with the company. This was a surprise to my supervisor, who hadn't been in touch with him for a few weeks, simply to concentrate on winding work down and completing her graduate school work. She did rustle up a new name for me, but I have also registered online, and once I post a resume, someone who has taken this fugitive guy's clients may contact me (and hopefully my super!) to start sending me on interviews.

On that resume topic. I had to set work on my resume aside earlier in February when the remedial work I needed to exert on the outsourcing crew became daily and frequent. It's mostly done, but I am sure it could use some polishing and rewording to maximize its chances of passing through the scanners and word-sniffers now used to supplant human judgment at the first stage of resume screening. This is one of the ways in which the career center will help, and one of my friends, the talented and wise Jen, has offered to review it as well. I feel certain all of this attention will make it the best it can be.

But, if my profession is going to be gutted on these shores, to what end? Back to Blinder. After supporting free trade and decrying industry-sponsored protectionism, which won him fans in the NAFTA-oriented Clinton White House, Blinder began during this decade to have misgivings about how free jobs might be to slip across the border, and not just to Canada or North America:
At Princeton, he began to reassess some of his views on trade. Visiting the yearly business gabfest in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2004, he heard executives talk excitedly about moving jobs overseas that not long ago seemed anchored in the U.S. . . .

Mr. Blinder says he agreed with [then-chairman of President Bush's Council on Economic Advisers, Blinder's student at Princeton, and apparently callous supporter of outsourcing, N. Gregory] Mankiw's point that the economics of trade are the same however imports are delivered. But he'd begun to wonder if the technology that allowed English-speaking workers in India to do the jobs of American workers at lower wages was "a good thing" for many Americans. . . .

Mr. Blinder began to muse about this in public. At a Council on Foreign Relations forum in January 2005 he called "offshoring," or the exporting of U.S. jobs, "the big issue for the next generation of Americans." Eight months later on Capitol Hill, he warned that "tens of millions of additional American workers will start to experience an element of job insecurity that has heretofore been reserved for manufacturing workers."
Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin prodded Blinder to write an essay about outsourcing, which was published in Foreign Policy, and which gave rise to an eventual, refined number of between 30 million and 40 million "vulnerable" jobs. The WSJ article describes the "divide" as not being between jobs requiring education and those that don't, but "between services that must be done in the U.S. and those that can — or will be someday — be delivered electronically with little degradation in quality."

From my piece earlier this month:
Here's a better question. Whether I am exercising my design talent as an independent contractor or an employee, I have to be concerned that someone will try to find a cheaper worker to do the same job. What skills or talents do I possess that I can channel into work that cannot be sent overseas?

Warnings of negative employment trends in creative industries will not come from top management until it's too late. Why should they tilt the crystal ball until the second they're done with paying American salaries? We have to do our own research to find out what skills U.S. companies are eager to outsource. Doing good work may not be enough any more. Employers are clearly willing to settle for less quality in favor of more, cheaper product and higher profit margins. Sadly, this affects editors, designers, Web programmers, and maybe even editorial assistants — don't believe for one moment that tasks like manuscript prepping and entering handwritten author corrections can never be sent out of the pricey New York market or entirely outside the country. They may even try to outsource writing someday. I cannot rule it out.
To quote Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, "Boy, do I hate being right all the time! "

The article does offer counter-arguments from other economic and public-policy thinkers, but I have seen enough from my own experience to credit Dr. Blinder with the guts to say something very real, if politically unwelcome, happeing in today's economic environment. I'd write the paper to commend Dr. Blinder and the article's authors, David Wessel and Bob Davis, for their work and for putting it on A1. Unfortunately, my severance and retention bonus are contingent on my signing a document in which I am unable to describe the workings of, or be seen as critical of, my former employers.

So what do I do? Return to school for management training and reenter publishing on that track? Would that potentially put me in the position of headsman at the next round of layoffs at some company? Could I carry out that sort of order? Already I feel like a collaborationist for helping the bastards at the top profit from my departure and that of my teammates. But if it means I secure a little money to armor myself, via skill acquisition or career training, against the next surge of layoffs, is that so evil? I don't have answers to those questions, though I believe they are worth asking at the career-consulting firm I will visit this Monday. Surely they have their fingers on the pulse of job trends.

To my potentially jobless fellow 178,529 graphic designers, I repeat: Are you replaceable?

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