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Exit route

Some careers have so much potential that they contain the sweet scent of possibility and longevity. Then there are those that stink like a dead end alleyway. Which one are you in?

Q: You mentioned in a recent column that help-desk jobs and low-level programming will continue to face the outsourcing process. So far, my job hasn’t been cut, but since I do help desk customer support for a medium-sized company, I have been worried lately. How real is the possibility that my work might get sent overseas?

A: Before answering this, it would be helpful to get more specifics on your particular situation, like where exactly you work, your level of seniority, and your unique skills in providing support. However, I have a feeling that even if I read your desk calendar and call logs, I’d come to the same answer: Get out. In other words, if your job were a girlfriend, she’d be writing the goodbye note right now.

It could be that you have some time left, perhaps even years. But the trend toward outsourcing is gathering steam, and the type of job you’re in is the kind that’s not long for this country, in my opinion. Help-desk positions at medium and large companies are ripe for budget cuts and outsourcing try-outs, and with a brightening economy, businesses will probably feel even more confident about shipping work out rather than feel more inclined to spend the money at home. After all, if the economy turns around, they have less to lose. But you, dear help-desk guru, have plenty to lose.

For anyone who’s in support, I’d advise taking a good look around the office and counting the empty desks. If there aren’t any, then swell. That means you can probably still take your vacation days and return to the swizzle sticks and snow globes in your cubicle. But if it’s beginning to look a bit sparse and there seems to be no more hiring being done, then polish up that resume, think about where you want to be in a few years, and work like Bill Gates to get there.

This is not to say that help-desk support will disappear from the American landscape in the same way that floppy-disk manufacturers had to change or die a decade ago. Just as there are still telephone operators in an automated cell-phone landscape, so too will there be support personnel into the future. However, the chances that a mid-sized or large company will drain its U.S. support labor pool are pretty high at this point, and if you’re still swimming there, you’d be wise to find another pond.

But let’s say that you adore customer service, that whenever the phone rings you feel a tingling excitement to your very core. Does the current outsourcing movement mean that you’ll never get to aid another helpless technology victim? The answer is: Don’t worry, you won’t have to hang up your headset quite yet.

There’s definitely a need for good, old-fashioned call-center support in the United States, but you have to know where to find it. Smaller companies like local ISPs will continue to hire tech-savvy, friendly phone jockeys for some time to come.

If you’re truly enamored of help desk support, you’d be better off finding a small firm that focuses on stellar customer service. You could also think about how to expand your role at these companies. It’s a rare individual indeed who doesn’t burn out on tech support after a while, so think about what else you can do at the company beyond helping callers to hook up their DSL or navigate through error messages.

In many ways, this question also pertains to other areas of tech that are getting sent overseas. Entry-level programming, database creation, low-level data management, and data entry all seem ripe for sending to an outside vendor, and companies that were hesitant to call that firm in Bangalore are now picking up the phone. As I’ve mentioned in this column before, that makes for mixed reactions in the technology community, and junior programmers and call-center techies are smart to be worried.

However, the outsourcing trend could prove to be a boon for small businesses. Many able and skilled technology gurus are now on the market, and it’s the smaller companies that are benefiting from the wealth of available talent. If you’re one of the talented, do yourself a favor and think about whether it makes sense to join forces with a small business.

Not only will you get the opportunity to take shelter from the outsourcing storm, but you’ll also have a greater role in determining the technology direction of a company or handling responsibilities that you may not have had at a mid-sized firm. So, if those empty desks start proliferating at your company, plan your escape accordingly. But first, think about what you want to see on the other side of that exit door.

Send your career-related questions to Elizabeth Millard.

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