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Outsourcing geology

As the political debate rages over the economy and unemployment rates in the United States, “outsourcing” and “offshoring” have become hot-button words. In March, the Senate passed an amendment to the JOBS Act (or the Jumpstart Our Business Strength Act), requiring that the federal government avoid purchasing services from companies that might send the work overseas.

Tracking contract work and other employment sent offshore by American companies is difficult, and how such legislative maneuvering might affect geoscientists specifically remains to be seen. However, offshoring may have a few unexpected consequences for geoscientists, and the current debate is fueling community-wide discussion.

By its nature, economic geology is a global endeavor. According to 2001 data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Affairs, U.S.-owned foreign mining companies employed about 140,000 people overseas in 2000 and 2001, and American geologists regularly participate in oil exploration around the world. The bureau’s data also show that on average, about one-quarter of U.S.-owned multinational companies’ full-time employees (including petroleum and coal companies) are based outside the United States.

This kind of hiring is a “geographic necessity,” particularly for the metals mining industry, says Dean Turner, president of Global Geotechnologies, Inc., a minerals exploration service group in Littleton, Colo. Turner says he follows the issue from the perspective of both a geologist and an information technology worker.

For mineral exploration, consolidation and regulation of mining in the United States has led to offshoring, Turner says, “not because it’s cheaper but because we’re working all over the world.” However, when companies hire local geologists, they are not only much less expensive, he says, but they also bring the advantages of knowing local languages, laws and other key operational needs.

“We’re always encouraged to use as many professionals locally as we can,” says Larry Cerrillo, an international groundwater consultant based in Colorado and the former president of the American Institute of Professional Geologists (AIPG). In his work on local groundwater exploration and development in foreign countries, Cerrillo is often funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development through private U.S. companies. Hiring local workers leads to professional development in places that need locally based geologists, he says. “I look at that as not all bad.”

Potential U.S. legislation on outsourcing may not affect Cerrillo’s overseas work, nor that of other consulting, mining and petroleum geologists, but other impacts could come for geospatial data management, says Curtis Sumner, executive director of the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping. Sumner says that of the several hundred U.S. companies that do satellite, geographic information systems (GIS) and photogrammetry work (which determines topography for surveying purposes), at least a handful send their data to Indian subsidiaries for processing. Other organizations, including the American Geological Institute (which publishes this magazine), use data-entry services in India and elsewhere.

Contracting out such work at home or abroad raises potential legal issues for professional surveyors, Sumner says, because licensing structures increasingly require direct oversight by licensed surveyors of the production of their companies’ results. “If you are sending work overseas — or across a state, or to another state for that matter — is the professional responsibility then harmed?” Sumner says. He also notes that with regard to mapping and other geospatial data, “both for security purposes and economic purposes, everybody is sensitive to jobs going offshore.”

On the homefront, Robert Font, AIPG’s president-elect, says that outsourcing by petrochemical companies in general has benefited him locally. “We are the product of outsourcing,” Font says of his geological and geophysical database company, Geoscience Data Management in Plano, Texas.

Many of Font’s employees were once employed overseas by the same petroleum geology companies that now hire them as contractors to do database work more cheaply. Although Font’s employees represent a “small United Nations,” bringing both domestic and international experience, he says, “all the jobs are here, and all of them are residents of the United States.”

In the long run, says Tucker Moorshead, a senior hydrogeologist with Earth Data Inc., in Centreville, Md., many geoscientists doing local environmental or other fieldwork probably will have nothing to fear from offshoring practices. His company’s work principally requires state permitting, where it is necessary, he says, to have an intimate knowledge of the requirements and of who reviews permits.

Moorshead also speculates that such basic work as chemical testing of water samples would be prohibitively expensive and time consuming to send abroad. And he notes that local groundwater, remediation or land application studies still require local fieldwork. “Geologists have a sort of built in protection,” he says. “As far as us facing any competition from offshoring, I don’t see that.”

Naomi Lubick

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