Outsourced help desk

Outsourced: help desk sitcom highlights ongoing trend

by nkronos on March 6, 2011

Outsourced help desks have become so prevalent for American consumers calling product customer support that setting a sitcom in one seemed inevitable. After all, stand-up comedians have been describing the customer telephone ping-pong among heavily accented operators in their routines for years. Moreover, the sitcom as form tends to move where people spend much of their lives because we like to look for humor that jibes with our own everyday experience. As home life segued to employment life and shows like The Office proved even cubicle-type settings could work, an outsourced help desk naturally suggests prime joke-mining turf.

We like to laugh about such subjects partly because we need to relieve the tension and stress such trends and adapting to them cause in our ordinary lives. In the sitcom Outsourced the head of the outsourced help desk is an Anglo from the States, who looks like a clone of John Krasinki’s Jim Halpert from The Office–right-down to the loose tie. His point of view is presumed to be ours as he deals with a work culture mostly foreign to his own. One episode featured his trying to hire a new worker and not only having a ridiculous number of applicants for such an entry-level job, but also encountering his existing staff’s attempts to foist elderly grandmothers and young (would-be) girlfriends on him. The episode concludes with the very real problem for all help desks that good, competent workers just will not stay in such a job.

Although critics worried that the show would play too much to Third World stereotypes, the verdict has been mostly positive. More importantly, though, Outsourced is a recognition of two important trends: the international commoditization of even white-collar labor and the rise of India as a global economic power.

Even as China’s booming growth as manufacturer to the world has captured the lion’s share of attention, India has with less hoopla dogged its rivals footsteps. Besides greater proficiency with English, India enjoys the advantages over China of a more open economy, borders, and society.  Additionally, as energy costs rise along with the demands for power from these developing economies, manufacturing and exports suffer much worse than do service-based industries. India has 55.3 percent of its GDP from services, whereas China’s is only a little more than 40 percent services.

India’s population should over-take China’s in fewer than 20 years, although per capita China is still much more productive.

Back in the United States, many see last week’s job figures as showing we may have finally turned the corner on the long slide in American employment. The commoditization of labor continues, however, unabated. Former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich reminds us that one reflection of this that has not changed in many, many years: the flattening of American wages:

Most of the new jobs created since February 2010 (about 1.26 million) pay significantly lower wages than the jobs lost (8.4 million) between January 2008 and February 2010.

While the biggest losses were higher-wage jobs paying an average of $19.05 to $31.40 an hour, the biggest gains have been lower-wage jobs paying an average of $9.03 to $12.91 an hour.

Helpdesk jobs are not high-end employment, but they represent a step up in skills and thus compensation from Walmart greeter and burger bag dispenser. They are office jobs, and as presented in the Outsourced episode, a great way to get a foot in the door at a company and then work one’s way up. Yanking the link of entry-level service jobs out of the employment chain leads to sadder outcomes stateside than a sitcom set at the other end of the globe can depict.

Part of the reason collective bargaining has become such a point of contention between government and its workers is the desire for government to be able to outsource functions like helpdesks and education support staff. Other government workers recognize where this trend taking the middle line between public management and outright privatization leads.  Especially when benefits and retirement are the main drivers of exploding government compensation costs, outsourcing is a quick fix, allowing governments to pay immediate wages without the longterm liabilities.

Both private enterprise and government run the risk of short-term gain for long-term cost through Tragedy of the Commons-type effects. Private enterprise has already experienced how labor commoditization can kill off one’s most presumably loyal customer base. Fewer people in Detroit can afford Cadillacs than could 25 years ago. For local governments the effect could be much more direct and immediate should outsourcing destroy their own tax base. After all, that’s the only customer they have.

Does it make fiscal sense, then, for governments ever to outsource their functions outside their own jurisdiction?

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