‘We shall fight them on the beaches’…

When Churchill said those legendary words, who would have thought 60 years
later the country would be once again fighting a shore-side battle to prevent
the demise of the UK? But this time the battle is an industrial one: on-shore
versus off-shore. But is it really that severe or just another economic cycle
that will see the decline in one industry followed by the birth of another?

Hot on the heels of BT, Abbey and Tesco, HSBC bank has announced plans to
slash 4,000 UK jobs. Call centres in Sheffield, Birmingham, Brentwood and
Swansea will close and jobs will be transferred to China, India and Malaysia.
By the end of 2006, around 13 per cent of the total HSBC workforce will be
employed in Asia. The UK national rail enquiry line may soon be heading down
the same track.

Amicus, to name but one employee body, is up in arms and are demanding that
this ‘off-shoring’ practice be stopped. I was listening to one union official
on the radio who believed that consumers want to deal with somebody local and
not someone who is thousands of miles away. But is that true? As a consumer of
a service, am I really bothered as long as I get the service I need? If the
operator is in Scotland, Ireland or India – what’s the difference, neither one
is local and either could give a good or a bad service. I know that, when I
ring the service desk for my home computer, that I often get Ireland or India.
And to be honest, I don’t care.

So if service is potentially not an issue then what about the UK job losses?
This, of course, is a problem; and one about which we should all be concerned.
But is the answer that we should resist progress, trying to compete with
countries that are still in deep poverty?

My suggestion, if we are to retain our position as fourth or fifth in the
world economy, is to put our efforts into another avenue for our UK talent.

Unemployment is at an all-time low and we continue to search overseas to
attract professional talent such as doctor’s and nurses rather than populating
the demand from within. So perhaps those who oppose these off-shoring plans, should
focus more on re-skilling those affected rather than wasting time trying to
block a commercial inevitability. Let’s concentrate our efforts on training our
workforces in skills other than call centre operation and move them up the
value chain.

And finally, what impact does all this have on the HR profession? Can HR be
sent off-shore?

There are many face-to-face roles in HR that will always require a local
presence, such as development, training and recruitment. And much HR advice
will need local legal and legislative knowledge. But let’s not kid ourselves.
With the commercial pressures bestowed on all of us, HR administration, data
management and payroll must be delivered as efficiently as possible whether
in-house or through a service centre on-shore, near-shore or off-shore.

By Alan Bailey, Head of business process outsourcing, Xchanging

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