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It isn’t always easy to preach competition (First appeared in InfoWorld)

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When it comes to government intervention in the antitrust action against Microsoft, lots of people say the marketplace should decide, even when there’s no longer a competitive marketplace and the whole point of the antitrust laws is to either preserve competition or compensate for its absence.

In the labor market, though, there’s widespread desire for government intervention to keep out “cheap foreign labor” – protectionism, in a word, to prevent competition.

Technical professionals are in short supply. Still, some Americans can’t find work, or at least can’t find it at their desired salary in their city of residence. Then they read about an influx of inexpensive foreign technical talent, especially from Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Adding two and three to get 23, they conclude that greedy American employers are hiring cheap foreign labor at their expense.

Like it or not, American technical talent, like all American labor, competes in a global labor market. When the government takes protectionist action we compete through our employers. When it doesn’t, we compete as individuals.

Take your pick, but when, for example, SAP wins a contract over Oracle in the ERP market, foreign jobs increase and American jobs decrease just as surely as when an American company hires a Pakistani programmer. One way or another, we all compete globally for our jobs.

Many American technical professionals have contributed to the developing mess through complacency, assuming job security from, for example, designing and programming batch Cobol systems. American employers certainly aren’t blameless in this fiasco either. You probably have employees like this batch Cobol programmer. When was the last time you provided career counseling or growth opportunities? Do your codger-programmers even know their jobs are at ever-increasing risk?

If you’re recruiting you probably have the right headcount (or close to it) but are undergoing some change that has led to a skills mismatch. That means employees who used to be competent aren’t anymore, and people get cranky under those circumstances. Since shooting your current employees is inhumane, frowned upon, and illegal in most states, here’s a more productive alternative:

1. Communicate the change you’re undertaking and why you’re undertaking it every chance you get. Your whole IT leadership team must preach the change, what it means, its implications and consequences, including the likelihood that not everyone will succeed in the new environment.

2. Hire a few key positions from the outside to lead by example. Hire the best people you can find. You want your employees to think, “None of my co-workers could do that.” As an alternative, bring in a consulting firm to work on projects in “blended teams” with your employees to help them learn the new skills. (Disclaimer – my company is in that business so I’m unavoidably biased in its favor.)

3. Retrain your retrainable employees. It’s cheaper than replacing them. Identify those least likely to succeed, tell them in no uncertain terms your concerns about them, give them every chance you can, and say good-bye to those who fail. You’re responsible for providing opportunity. They’re responsible for taking advantage of it.

4. Recruit replacements from wherever they live. Hire the best people you can find – the best, not the cheapest – and make no apology for doing so.

Great companies need great people. Hiring foreign labor because it’s cheap doesn’t get you great people.

But there are plenty of talented foreign technical professionals who are willing to work harder, and for less money, than their American counterparts. The resentment some American programmers express toward Indian, Pakistani, and Asian programmers is nothing more than simple bigotry.

It’s easy to preach competition when it’s Microsoft against Sun. When it comes to jobs, theory gets real personal, and that just doesn’t bring out the best in people.