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Exporting Technical Writing Jobs
2004, Q1 (February 21, 2007)
By Maggie VanNorman, President, STC NC State Chapter

Traditionally, contractors have played an important role in the technical writing field by providing specific expertise, thereby allowing companies to focus on their core competencies. Contactors have made it possible for companies to add temporary personnel when needed – an important benefit in a field where work output peaks periodically.

This environment has been beneficial for technical communicators; in fact, "we've thrived," said JoAnn Hackos, director of the Center for Information-Development Management and a leader in our field. In her presentation on Thursday, March 18 at Matrix Resources for the STC Carolina chapter, Hackos described how the traditional relationship between companies and contractors is rapidly changing. Instead of employing contractors for reasons such as specialized knowledge or temporary peak periods, offshore outsourcing focuses on cost savings, according to Hackos.

Hackos' presentation focused on the unique challenges that offshore outsourcing presents in terms of economic, quality, and management issues. She then discussed how technical communicators can protect their jobs, the primary area of interest for many in the audience. Hackos first discussed the most immediate fallout of offshore outsourcing: the reduction in high-paying jobs for US writers. Other economic issues include pressure for lower wages for US writers who and exportation of technical expertise.

Hackos then detailed quality issues raised by non-native English writers and non-American English writers. She explained that offshore writers often lack field-specific education or training. Also, offshore writers may not understand the US customers' needs and may have minimal contact with the developers, which, Hackos said, can result in the quality of publications suffering greatly.

Management issues can also surface with offshore outsourcing. Hackos discussed the potential development costs arising from added editing that is often required. Project and personnel management costs may increase, as these managers have additional responsibilities. Hackos also said that it is hard to hire and keep an offshore staff due to the rapid turnover. All told, she estimated management costs for an offshore staff to be about double the cost of local management.

According to Hackos, this adds up to a total cost savings of 0-20% for offshore outsourcing. Because some companies advertise savings of around 60-80%, she advised the attendees at the presentation to track the actual costs of contractors. Otherwise, "someone could use fiction to say it's less expensive," she warned.

Therefore, Hackos believes that in order to combat the shift to offshore outsourcing, technical communicators need to focus on making changes that will allow them to save their companies 15- 20%. The main areas for these cost-saving measures are increased efficiency, reduced costs, and improved quality.

In terms of increased efficiency, Hackos offered the following advice:
  • Minimalism: reduce the information sent to customers.
  • Single-source: reuse content modules in your deliverables.
  • Project management: estimate and track projects to control costs.

To reduce costs, Hackos said to focus on the following areas:
  • Editing: standardize language to reduce translation costs.
  • Productivity: welcome an increased workload.
  • Content management: keep a storehouse of unique content.

Improving quality is equally important to efficiency and cost concerns. Specifically, technical communicators should work on the following:
  • Intellectual capital: become experts on the customers and the content area.
  • Focus on goals and taskoriented information: work on the more difficult areas to show your value.
  • Toot your own horn: advertise your and your group's successes.

Her main advice to the group was, "Figure out how not to be a target."

Hackos gave an excellent presentation, filled with interesting anecdotes and specific examples of companies who have outsourced to offshore writers. She brought a wealth of knowledge and specific expertise gathered from her years of experience. Kendra Gladwin, a member of STC NC State chapter, said that Hackos "made a real connection with her audience and appeared to be very supportive of technical communicators."

Maggie VanNorman can be reached at mag_van at yahoo dot com. End of article.

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