Why White Collar Job Outsourcing Will Transform America's Suburbs

March 16, 2004, 12am PST | Seth Brown
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While there's no consensus on the precise number of white-collar jobs American companies will outsource to India in the coming years, it seems increasingly clear that millions of middle class jobs -- from programmers and back-office technicians to Wall Street analysts and architects -- will soon find their way from U.S. office parks to the cubicles of Bangalore and Mumbai.

 Seth BrownAnd while we swap stories about out-of-work programmers, one thing is clear: no one is preparing for the most important challenge -- ensuring that America's suburbs are ready for the inevitable and painful transition.

Why America's suburbs? In short, because America's high tech suburbs -- where millions of "information economy" jobs have been created in the past few decades -- are most at risk. In Silicon Valley's Santa Clara County, unemployment is still above the national average. In suburban Denver, Colorado, telecom companies have shed thousands of jobs. Cutting edge places like suburban northern Virginia, Route 128, outside of Boston, and Research Triangle Park, North Carolina should all be worried.

So will these leafy suburbs and corporate campuses turn into 21 st century versions of decaying Flint, Michigan? It's too soon to tell, but as America's older cities know well, it's hard to dodge the bullet of inexorable economic change.

In the 1960s and 1970s, as the first wave of manufacturing jobs left the U.S. for China and other low-cost locations, hundreds of thousands of American factory workers received pink slips. While factory workers were hard hit by these wrenching changes in the economy, it was America's manufacturing cities -- like New York, Detroit, Baltimore, and Philadelphia -- that really hit the skids. Workers could leave for greener pastures and other jobs, but cities could only do their best to staunch the bleeding. The loss of these jobs sent many cities into tailspins from which they are only now -- 30 years later -- beginning to recover.

If America's suburbs take a lesson from the recent experiences of its cities, however, they just might have a chance. First, start planning now for slower growth. While they might eventually be replaced, those jobs won't be coming back. Second, compete for new high-value industries like nanotechnology and biotech. Third, encourage the development of arts and cultural amenities that might persuade existing residents to stay put.

With some luck, America's suburbs will weather this global economic storm. And if not, well--suburban Bangalore is supposed to be very nice.

Seth Brown is publisher of The Next American City, a quarterly magazine about the ongoing transformation of America's communities. Excerpts of The Next American City's current issue -- looking at competition between cities -- are available on the web at www.americancity.org.

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