People are not widgets

I’ve been meaning to write about the commoditization of labor for a while, but the direct impetus for this post is Tara Hunt’s discussion of Riya‘s decision to close their India office, and in general how outsourcing affects the economic landscape for programmers there.

One of the things that tends to happen when those of us from the developed (first, northern, etc.) world spend some time talking with people and communities in developing (third world, southern, etc.) countries is that certain (even well-intentioned) stereotypes are challenged. Ideas like “everyone is equally poor over there” but also “R&D really only happens in the developed countries”, and “people in these places don’t know how to create things they can use themselves” which is directly tied to “those poor people don’t know what they need”. It’s very easy to start making people into single-use widgets when it comes to their role in the global economy: young men from India are the Java programmers stealing your jobs, the educated classes of China will sweep our engineering capacity, women in Mexico and the Philippines can assemble clothing quickly and deftly, etc. Some of these things may be true some of the time, but if we understand that the reality is more complicated at home (among the people we know), why do we try to impose this on people everywhere else?

That might be a trick question. Labor markets in the US definitely take a two-dimensional view of their workers. If you’ve ever been through the job application process at a large company, you’ve probably experienced the checklist of detailed requirements that are supposed to represent the ideal worker for the job. You also probably know that it’s possible to hire someone who meets those exact requirements, and yet can’t do the work adequately.

I have a particular stake in this argument as well. If companies see me as “intermediate-level Ruby programmer with business writing skills” or somesuch, they’re missing out on huge chunks of what I know and can do, and I’m missing out on potentially interesting opportunities. I think for any kind of work that requires skill or training (and large amounts of work are this way now, thanks to various kinds of automation), determining who is qualified, let alone a good match, can be fairly complex. I’m not suggesting we make hiring any more of a PITA than it already is, just this: keep in mind that “labor” is made up of individual people, not widgets with various certifications.

Going for the cheapest labor without other considerations disrupts business every time the market conditions change, as well. It’s heartbreaking to watch interviews with textile workers (already in a precarious economic position) who’ve lost their jobs because their employer found cheaper workers elsewhere, but what about the impact to knowledge industries when they do this? Losing an entire team of programmers at once is certain to require adjustments for everyone else, and may mean losing specialized knowledge that’s difficult to recreate.

So here’s the point I’m trying to argue: it’s better for business to not over-commoditize labor. People are complex, multi-dimensional creatures, and the best choice in a given situation depends on more than monetary price. In addition, the cost (internal and external) of switching groups of workers is much greater than switching supplies of actual commodities like lumber or canola oil, and these costs should absolutely should be taken into account.

I caught something on the radio yesterday that seems tied to this. On Morning Edition’s business report, they had an interview with someone who had just completed a survey on outsourcing in engineering. The general conclusion was that the availability of qualified engineering graduates in the US was sufficient for our business needs, and that significant parts of the potential pool of engineers in China or India were not qualified to our standards, so while companies are saying “we can’t find the qualified workers we need” what they really meant, if you dug in, was that they didn’t want to pay for homegrown workers. I think this does everyone a disservice.

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