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OM in the News: The End of Employees?

February 6, 2017
UPS employees at a facility in N.H. pack jet-engine parts bound for Pratt & Whitney factories. The work used to be done by Pratt employees

UPS employees at a facility in N.H. pack jet-engine parts bound for Pratt & Whitney factories. The work used to be done by Pratt employees

No one in the airline industry comes close to Virgin America on a measurement of efficiency called revenue per employee. That’s because baggage delivery, maintenance, reservations, catering and many other jobs aren’t done by employees. “We will outsource every job we can that is not customer-facing,” says Virgin’s CEO.

“Never before have American companies tried so hard to employ so few people,” writes The Wall Street Journal (Feb. 3, 2017). The outsourcing wave that moved apparel-making jobs to China and call-center operations to India is now just as likely to happen inside companies across the U.S. and in almost every industry. This “contractor model” is so prevalent that Google, ranked as the best place to work for 7 of the past 10 years, has roughly equal numbers of outsourced workers and full-time employees. About 70,000 temps, vendors and contractors test drive Google’s cars, review legal documents, make products easier to use, manage marketing and data projects, and do other jobs. (They wear red badges, while regular employees wear white ones).

The biggest allure of outsourcing employees, of course, is more control over costs. Contractors help businesses keep their in-house staffing lean and flexible enough to adapt to new ideas or changes in demand. At large firms, 20-50% of the total workforce often is outsourced. Bank of America, Verizon, P&G, and FedEx have thousands of contractors each. In oil, gas and pharmaceuticals, outside workers can outnumber employees by at least 2 to 1.

Janitorial work and cafeteria services disappeared from most company payrolls long ago. But a similar shift is under way for higher-paying, white-collar jobs such as research scientist, recruiter, operations manager and loan underwriter. Few companies or economists expect this trend to reverse. Moving noncore jobs out of a company allows it to devote more time and energy to the things it does best. Businesses currently spend about $1 trillion a year on outsourcing.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. What are the disadvantages of this massive outsourcing?
  2. Would students want to take “contract” jobs?
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