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White-collar jobs are the latest heading overseas

By Peter S. Goodman
The Washington Post

SHANGHAI, China — The architect leaned over the draft blueprint, contemplating how best to fit the staircase into the stairwell and still comply with local safety codes. A typical design job, except for one detail: The architect, Chen Chun, sat in a cubicle here in China, while her stairway was to be built in upstate New York at an office complex being erected for a Fortune 500 company. The “local” code she confronted applied to a place she’d never been, on the other side of the world.

The most unusual thing about this long-distance arrangement was how utterly ordinary it has become — another day at the global offices of HLW International LLP, a New York-based architecture firm. Using the Internet to ship blueprints across the Pacific and two-way videoconferencing to simulate meetings, HLW is increasingly handling the task of turning high-concept design into detailed plans by farming it out to associates in Shanghai for a fraction of the cost at home, extending its workday to a 24-hour cycle.

Factory and assembly jobs have long been moving overseas from the United States. But HLW’s operations in Shanghai show how technology is tying together more of the global production chain, allowing even highly skilled work that once seemed inextricably linked to a particular place to be shipped out to lower-cost lands.

The white-collar work is expanding beyond the customer-service call centers that many U.S. companies have moved to developing countries. In India, for example, radiologists now interpret CT scans for hospitals in the United States, and accountants assess risks on loan applications for homes halfway around the globe. U.S. architectural work is being farmed out to the Philippines, Poland and India, as well as China. Microsoft Corp. operates a sophisticated computer research center in Beijing.

By 2015, according to a report by Forrester Research Inc., more than 3 million white-collar jobs and nearly $140 billion in wages will have shifted from the United States to other nations.

On a recent afternoon at HLW’s Shanghai office, a white board in the conference room listed the projects the local architects were working on that day: a film studio complex for Warner Bros. in Los Angeles; an apartment building on East 96th Street in Manhattan; a laboratory for a pharmaceutical giant in New Jersey; the expansion of the clubhouse at the posh Shanghai Racquet Club; and a manufacturing plant for the elevator and escalator colossus Otis Elevator Co. in the Chinese city of Hangzhou.

New Yorker Christopher Choa, who now serves as the director of the Shanghai office, and partner J.C. Ru, a Shanghai-born architect, had gradually built a local staff that could compete for more design work.

“To do a large project here well, you need a critical mass,” Choa said. “You need a lot of good people. But you can’t just wait around for that project to take shape. We needed to have something for them to do.”

Meanwhile, back in the United States, HLW’s offices had more work than they could handle. The dot-com surge was at its height, nurturing a prodigious crop of science parks, office towers and expansions.

“We were so busy back in the States that we were having to work around the clock to meet deadlines,” Choa said. “That’s when we realized that we had an office that's exactly 12 hours out of sync with New York. We could finish work there for the day and hand it off to Shanghai and keep working 24 hours a day.”

In New York, HLW typically must pay $100 to $120 an hour for a skilled architect. Here, the cost is a fraction of that, Choa said.

The early years saw no shortage of mishaps and miscommunication. Though English is the language of work at the HLW office here, many of the architects were shy about using this foreign tongue in addressing colleagues overseas on the video links. The local architects were unfamiliar with the software and technical standards in use in the United States and not versed in the ways of thinking spatially that defined the New York office. Work had to be redone and redone again, eroding the savings of cost and time.

Then there were technical problems. Staff here learned firsthand about the gap between the crisp world of global communications as glimpsed through high-tech television ads and the tedious realities of trying to persuade modems to talk to one another across oceans.

These days, the kinks have mostly been worked out, Choa said. Clients don’t seem to care that their structures in Los Angeles or New York have been designed in part in China. The local staff is up to the standard set at home.