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A plan to offshore . . . just 3 miles out

Page 2 of 2 -- Workers will spend four months on board, and then get a two-month vacation, with the company paying to fly them home. Since they live and work at sea, the engineers won't need the costly and controversial H-1B visas used by US firms to import technical talent. But that doesn't mean they're marooned. During off hours on the ship, they'll be able to take a boat to shore, just like sailors on a visiting merchant ship. ''They can't live ashore, they can't work ashore, but they can come ashore and spend money," said Cook.

With their expenses covered by SeaCode, these nautical nerds will have plenty of spare doubloons to spend. Green said that SeaCode will pay them several times what they could earn in countries like India. But Green admits his employees will still get much less than US engineers.

''Part of the move to outsourcing is to cut costs," he said. ''There's no question about it."

The SeaCode plan doesn't sit well with activists who fret over lost American jobs. Not that they're planning to row out to the ship and scuttle it.

''I think it's a pretty far-fetched business proposition," said Ron Hira, vice president for career activities for the US chapter of the Institute for Electrical & Electronics Engineers. ''When I first heard it, I thought it might be a hoax."

Even if Cook and Green launch their project, the 600 engineers on board represent a fraction of the engineering work that has migrated away from the United States.

Despite this, Hira says the SeaCode plan is a harbinger of hard times for US workers.

''It shows you the interest that's out there in terms of trying to take advantage of low-cost labor," he said. ''There's a real hunger for that, which should make US workers pretty worried."

The job market for electrical engineers and computer science got much better over the past year, but Hira and his fellow techies are still fretful.

They should be. Demand for foreign technology workers is as intense as ever. The federal government went through its entire 2005 quota of H-1B visa applications in a single day. Congress authorized another 20,000, and US businesses want even more.

Meanwhile, said Hira, American workers watch and worry. ''There's a lot of insecurity out there," he said. ''What scares them more than anything else is their vulnerability, that their job can be shipped offshore."

Soon, perhaps, just a few miles offshore.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at 

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