Obama touts desire to keep tech jobs in the US

Though he points to offshore outsourcing, his plan needs specifics

US presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama attacked offshore outsourcing in his acceptance of the Democratic presidential nomination Thursday night, drawing a bead on a practice that has displaced nearly one in 10 IT workers, according to a new study.

Obama said that as president, he "will stop giving tax breaks to companies that ship jobs overseas, and I will start giving them to companies that create good jobs right here in America."

Economists and legal advisors contacted about those comments said they are unaware of any specific tax breaks aimed at offshoring tech jobs. Instead, they said, Obama may be targeting broader tax deferment strategies, such as the ability of multinational firms to avoid taxes on profits by moving money overseas.

Joe Greco, director of California State University-Fullerton's Center for the Study of Emerging Markets, discounted the impact of tax code changes on the broader offshore trend. "Any plans for a tax code change are like trying to plug a hole in a leaky dam with your finger -- to believe the US government tax code promotes outsourcing is a major misconception of the fiery debate around outsourcing offshore," he said.

But Obama could have more success fighting the shift of jobs overseas through the second half of his point --- by creating incentives for companies to add jobs in the US, said Greco. "If you want to be a magnet, you can be a magnet," he said.

Indeed, Jim Harvey, the partner and co-chair of the global technology and outsourcing practice group at Hunton & Williams in New York, said state and local governments can be very active in creating incentives to retain jobs, including tying a particular number of jobs to the size of a tax break. Such incentives, he said, can make a difference for some clients. "Incentives to keep jobs on shore, targeted at the IT industry, would make a lot of sense," Harvey said.

But tax breaks to keep jobs in the US don't always work. The Nielsen Company, recently gave up local tax breaks it received in Florida after it hired an India-based firm.

If Obama plans to keep giving attention to offshore outsourcing, he is hitting an issue that is having a major effect on tech workers. In what may be the largest study of its kind, involving 10,000 workers and human resources professionals across a range of occupations, researchers at the New York University Stern School of Business and Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania found that 8 percent of IT workers in the US have been displaced. The study was released last week.

As high as that figure is -- 240,000 out of some three million tech workers -- Ron Hira, an assistant professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology and author of Outsourcing America, said it still understates the impact of offshoring on IT workers.

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Patrick Thibodeau

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