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Middle-class, white-collar jobs leaving, too, not just 'grunt' work

Jim Pinder lost his job to India before most people had ever heard of ''offshoring."

It was October of 2000. Pinder, then 40, had a master's degree in engineering from the University of Lowell and a resume packed with 14 years of technology experience. He was six months into a plum job as a software test manager at Lucent Technologies Inc.'s Westford office, making about $90,000 a year.

But Pinder's plans for building a career at Lucent were cut short on the day a supervisor told him and two dozen software designers and testers that their work was being shipped to India.

''It was a shock," Pinder said. ''I was looking forward to some good work there."

Times were good, so Pinder was able to land another technology job that very day, albeit as a contractor. Still, the notion of losing a job to someone thousands of miles away seemed as strange to him then as it does now.

''This is like sending your creative talent away," he said. ''It's delivering the ability to create a product to the hands of future competition. I think it's a big mistake."

The flow of US technology jobs to India and other developing nations has become fodder for political debates, industry conferences, and business-school lectures. Many corporate leaders say the wave is inevitable, part of the never-ending hunt for low-cost labor. But the latest offshoring trend is hitting home in a way the others did not -- sending solidly middle-class, white-collar jobs, with their generous paychecks, overseas.

''We can't hide the reality of the situation," said Barbara Kunkel, chief information officer at the law firm Nixon Peabody and a member of the CIO Executive Council, a trade group in Framingham.

A council poll of information chiefs at large companies last month found that 38 percent house all or part of their information-technology staffs offshore. Of those, 65 percent said costs had driven the moves. And the CIOs expect offshoring to continue at a brisk clip for at least two to five more years before peaking.

Numerous chief executives, venture capitalists, and economists say that for US companies to stay competitive, they must do some of their work overseas. Manufacturers are looking to China; South Africa is aggressively courting call centers; and software companies are moving research and development to India.

By spending less on the most basic high-tech jobs, proponents argue, companies will have capital available to invest in more ambitious technology, and workers to create and implement it.

Kunkel said offshoring makes sense, economically. But she acknowledged the collateral toll that few in business are owning up to so far: It's not only the so-called ''grunt jobs" leaving US soil, but skilled positions that Americans with advanced degrees have held in the past.

At Lucent, Pinder was working on network-management software he described as complex. Today, he works full time for Colubris Networks Inc., a Waltham start-up involved in wireless systems, where senior engineers earn $90,000 to $110,000. Pinder works on automating the testing of software, a skill he said he honed after the Lucent experience.

Barry Fougere, chief executive of Colubris, moved the company to his native Massachusetts after first joining it in Laval, Quebec. The company still has about 20 people in the Montreal area; it has more than 50 in Waltham. Fougere said he can't swear the company will never move its software work abroad. But for now, it's out of the question.

''I would not outsource something with that level of importance," Fougere said.

Yet many companies are doing just that, from Lucent and Citigroup Inc. to legions of start-ups.

''It's really a function of survival for a software company," said Marc Hebert, a former Oracle Corp. executive and an offshoring consultant at Sierra Atlantic Inc., in Fremont, Calif. At the same time, he said, the trend will mean fewer jobs for US college graduates.

''What we experienced in the late '90s was really an aberration. Kids coming out of MIT would get offered a BMW as a signing bonus," Hebert said. Today, jobs are harder to come by for graduates, he said. ''And maybe they're not getting as much cutting-edge work as they used to get."

Some people worry that software design, long the bedrock of Boston's high-tech economy, will go the way of the steel plant and the textile mill. Ian Fletcher, vice president of government relations at the American Engineering Association, a Washington lobbying group that opposes offshoring, said if America exports large numbers of today's junior jobs, it will be hard-pressed to train workers for more sophisticated information technology posts.

''If you sacrifice the low-end jobs, you end up sacrificing the high-end jobs," Fletcher said, ''because people don't have the ability to learn the skills." Further, he said, ''The idea that Americans can just parachute into these high-level jobs is ludicrous."

Beth Healy can be reached at bhealy@globe.com.

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