updated 3/4/2004 3:35:37 PM ET 2004-03-04T20:35:37

Ron Hira, a public policy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and who represents the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA, is worried about the future of his occupation in the U.S.

"A lot of people aren't recommending this profession to the next generation," says Prof. Hira. He points to the debate about the outsourcing of U.S. jobs overseas — offshoring — which he says has had "a chilling effect on the technology workforce".

John Kerry, who on Wednesday swept aside any doubts that he would be the Democrats' presidential nominee, has placed concerns about lost American jobs at the center of his platform — and those concerns, says Prof. Hira, are turning people off training in areas seen as vulnerable.

Stories abound of IT professionals training their overseas replacements, only to be laid off. "This isn't knowledge transfer — it's knowledge extraction," says Prof. Hira. "The job market for IT workers is so depressed that they have to do it. If they quit, they risk not getting unemployment benefits and jeopardize their pensions. People in America don't have a choice."

But without his professional hat on, Prof. Hira strikes a different tone. He happens to be Indian-American, and he has cousins in India who are benefiting from the boom. "I have a personal interest in seeing India grow," he says.

This anomaly between the personal and the professional is a dilemma for many Indian-Americans, especially those with relatives in India. While they are happy to see family members benefiting from the offshoring boom, many also feel that their own jobs are slipping away.

Surveys suggest that Asians are the largest minority group in science and engineering jobs in the U.S. In 1999, the most recent date for which data are available, the National Science Foundation reported that about 11 percent of U.S. scientists and engineers were of Asian descent.

They work in a sector that faces unprecedented levels of unemployment. Joblessness among electrical engineers reached 7 percent in the first quarter of 2003 and 7.5 per cent among computer software engineers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The national unemployment rate last month was 5.6 per cent.

The offshoring debate has also provoked concern within the Indian community about possible fall-out from some of the more violent rhetoric.

Christopher Dumm, executive director of the Indian American Center for Political Awareness, says there is fear about a possible backlash that could mean discrimination at work, xenophobic rhetoric or even violence. "Privately or vocally, people are looking to the example of [anti-Japan sentiment] in the 1980s," he says.

Margaret Fung, of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York, is also alert: "There's always concern when there is perceived economic competition," she says. "We want to be sure there isn't a backlash against Asians."

Christopher McCannell, a spokesperson for Joseph Crowley, a member of the House of Representatives who chairs the Congressional Caucus on India, says many of Mr. Crowley's constituents — in sections of Queens and the Bronx in New York, a district that has the second-highest concentration of south Asians in the U.S. — are worried.

"A lot of Indian-Americans are concerned that Indians and India are being targeted, that they are somehow at fault for the success of business-process outsourcing," says Mr. McCannell. "They are sensitive that their success is being looked down upon."

But Mr. Dumm emphasizes that anxiety about offshoring has not yet escalated into a backlash and says Indian-American groups hope "it is an early issue that will fade".

Others in the Indian community focus on the promise of offshoring.

"I don't see it as a huge problem for our community," says Rahul Mahna of the Network of Indian Professionals and head of Soft Source, an outsourcing company in New Jersey.

He adds: "More people in the U.S. are looking favorably upon India and seeing that we're not just about spicy food."

Copyright The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved.


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