Case in Point: Outsourcing, Insourcing, and Employment

Outsourcing, Insourcing, and Employment

The phenomenon of outsourcing has become common as the Internet and other innovations in communication have made it easier for firms to transfer aspects of their production overseas. At the same time, countries such as India and China have invested heavily in education and have produced a sizable workforce of professional people capable of filling relatively high level positions for firms in more developed countries.

The very idea of outsourcing rankles politicians on the left and on the right. In the United States, there have been numerous congressional hearings on outsourcing and proposals to block firms that engage in the practice from getting government contracts.

By outsourcing, firms are able to reduce their production costs. As we have seen, a reduction in production costs translates into increased output and falling prices. From a consumer’s point of view, then, outsourcing should be a very good thing. The worry many commentators express, however, is that outsourcing will decimate employment in the United States, particularly among high-level professionals. Matthew J. Slaughter, an economist at Dartmouth University, examined employment trends from 1991 to 2001 among multinational U.S. firms that had outsourced jobs. Those firms outsourced 2.8 million jobs during the period.

Were the 2.8 million jobs simply lost? Mr. Slaughter points out that there are three reasons to expect that the firms that reduced production costs by outsourcing would actually increase their domestic employment. First, by lowering cost, firms are likely to expand the quantity they produce. The foreign workers who were hired, who Mr. Slaughter refers to as “affiliate workers,” appeared to be complements to American workers rather than substitutes. If they are complements rather than substitutes, then outsourcing could lead to increased employment in the country that does the outsourcing.

A second reason outsourcing could increase employment is that by lowering production cost, firms that increase the scale of their operations through outsourcing need more domestic workers to sell the increased output, to coordinate its distribution, and to develop the infrastructure to handle all those goods.

Finally, firms that engage in outsourcing are also likely to increase the scope of their operations. They will need to hire additional people to explore other product development, to engage in research, and to seek out new markets for the firm’s output.

Thus, Mr. Slaughter argues that outsourcing may lead to increased employment because domestic workers are complements to foreign workers, because outsourcing expands the scale of a firm’s operations, and because it expands the scope of operations. What did the evidence show? Remember the 2.8 million jobs that multinational firms based in the United States outsourced between 1991 and 2001? Employment at those same U.S. firms increased by 5.5 million jobs during the period. Thus, with the phenomena of complementarity, increases in scale, and increases of scope, each job outsourced led to almost two additional jobs in the United States.

The experience of two quite dissimilar firms illustrates the phenomenon. Walmart began expanding its operations internationally in about 1990. Today, it manages its global operations from its headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas where it employs 15,000 people. Roughly 1,500 of these people coordinate the flow of goods among Walmart’s stores throughout the world. Those 1,500 jobs would not exist were it not for globalization. Xilinx, the high technology research and development firm, generates sales of about $1.5 billion per year. Sixty-five percent of its sales are generated outside the United States. But 80% of its employees are in the United States.

Outsourcing, then, generates jobs. It does not destroy them. Mr. Slaughter concludes: “Instead of lamenting ongoing foreign expansion of U.S. multinationals, if history is our guide then we should be encouraging it.”

Mr. Slaughter and co-researcher Robert Kimmitt make a similar case for insourcing, production, and jobs generated by multinationals based outside the United States that build plants inside the United States. In 2007, these companies employed almost 2 million Americans with average compensation of nearly $80,000. Contrary to popular belief, the unionization rates of the United States affiliates of these companies were about 50% higher than for the rest of the U.S. private sector.

Think every country is pro-trade? How about the U.S.? The following reading might surprise you.


How do people around the world feel about expanding trade between nations? In summer 2007, the Pew Foundation surveyed 45,000 people in 47 countries. One of the questions asked about opinions on growing trade ties between countries. Table 20.3 shows the percentages who answered either “very good” or “somewhat good” for some of countries surveyed.

For those who think of the United States as the world’s leading supporter of expanding trade, the survey results may be perplexing. When adding up the shares of those who say that growing trade ties between countries is “very good” or “somewhat good,” Americans had the least favorable attitude toward increasing globalization, while the Chinese and South Africans ranked highest. In fact, among the 47 countries surveyed, the United States ranked by far the lowest on this measure, followed by Egypt, Italy, and Argentina.

Country Very Good Somewhat Good Total
China 38% 53% 91%
South Africa 42% 43% 87%
South Korea 24% 62% 86%
Germany 30% 55% 85%
Canada 29% 53% 82%
United Kingdom 28% 50% 78%
Mexico 22% 55% 77%
Brazil 13% 59% 72%
Japan 17% 55% 72%
United States 14% 45% 59%
Table 20.3. The Status of Growing Trade Ties between Countries (Source: