Native Americans Seek 'Outsourced' Jobs

Some Native Americans see outsourcing as a way out of economic hardship. Utah's Paiutes have landed government contracts for call-center work. Next may be manufacturers who would otherwise look overseas.

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Some new nations are attracting outsourced high-tech jobs, American Indian nations. They are looking for ways to overcome extreme poverty and unemployment. And while they aren't interested in low wages, these tribes say they have other advantages over places much further away. NPR's Ted Robbins reports.

TED ROBBINS reporting:

For thousands of years, the Cedar band of Paiutes were hunter-gatherers, living among the cedar juniper trees that flourish in the mountains of southwest Utah. But today, on a 2,000-acre reservation in and around Cedar City, Utah, tribal members like Jennifer Hussy(ph) spend their workdays inside.

Ms. JENNIFER HUSSY (Paiute Member): I live on my e-mails, and probably 90 percent of my work is through e-mail.

ROBBINS: Jennifer Hussy used to work for the tribal school district. Now she processes orders for Suh'dutsing Technologies, a tribally owned information technology, or IT, company. Suh'dutsing designs, installs and manages communications and computer systems for the federal government.

Ms. HUSSY: I mean, I have never done anything like this until I came here. It really opened my eyes on how much the world has gone into IT.

ROBBINS: Suh'dutsing, which is Paiute for `cedar,' is only a year and a half old, but it already has contracts with the Interior, Commerce and Defense departments. Suh'dutsing had about $13 million in revenues last year. Its founder and CEO is Travis Parashonts, who grew up in the tribe without a father, on welfare and troubled by alcohol. In high school, he says that he turned a corner thanks to a teacher, the football team and a growing sense of pride in his people. Now he wants to pass it along.

Mr. TRAVIS PARASHONTS (Founder and CEO, Suh'dutsing Technologies): Part of my vision is that I don't want some of the kids to go through what I went through when I was young. And in order to do that, there's got to be something for them here, an opportunity for them here.

ROBBINS: Right now Sah'dutsing has about 20 employees. Roughly a third of the tribe is unemployed, so every job is meaningful. And a casino is not an option.

Mr. PARASHONTS: In Utah, gambling is against the law, so it'd be hard for us to get a compact. So we don't have any gambling. But with the Paiutes, we have very little resources. We don't have any natural resources like timber, coal, oil, gas or water, hunting and fishing.

ROBBINS: So the Paiutes, along with the Lakota, the northern Ute, the Navajo, the Chippewa and other tribes in remote locations, are looking to high-tech outsourcing for economic stability.

(Soundbite of printer)

ROBBINS: What's printing out right now?

Unidentified Woman: A history of the Cedar band of Paiutes.

ROBBINS: Every marketing packet coming off the printer explains the tribe's history, language and demographics. The Paiute want potential customers to understand their traditional values, but to be successful, they have to understand their customers. Jackie Gant heads the Native American Business Alliance. She says only in recent years have Indians begun learning the differences between tribal culture and corporate culture.

Ms. JACKIE GANT (Native American Business Alliance): You would never cut off a chief or an elder who was speaking. You could sit in a room and they would speak for hours; you would not interrupt them. Where if you were in a corporate meeting, sometimes you have shouting matches at one another in order to get your point across.

ROBBINS: Suh'dutsing found success with partners like Intel and Northrop Grumman, which provide mentoring and expertise through a Small Business Administration program. The program sets aside a small percentage of all government contracts for fledging disadvantaged businesses. What Native American businesses like Suh'dutsing say they can offer is better quality control, lower overhead and more motivation. That's helped win government contracts. Now tribes say they'll go after corporations that send their jobs overseas.

Mr. STEVE LARSON (Manager, Supplier Diversity Development, Ford Motor Company): Let's face it. North Dakota's an awful lot closer than China or the Philippines or India or anyplace else.

ROBBINS: Steve Larson is Ford Motor Company's Manager of Supplier Diversity Development. Larson says American Indian tribes don't have to offer the lowest wages to get corporate outsourcing jobs. Suh'dutsing, for instance, won't take jobs that pay less than $10 an hour. But Larson says other cost savings, some provided by the government, can make the difference.

Mr. LARSON: It's more than just how many dollars an hour the employees are paid. There's the overhead and health care is a big issue there, and that doesn't apply 'cause that's already covered; transportation costs, warehousing costs, some taxes.

ROBBINS: Remote Indian reservations may never rival the large telephone and tech support centers found in China or India. Of course, reservations don't have those huge populations to put to work. But even if tribes find enough niches to fill with well-paying jobs, it could make for a sustainable economy in some of America's neediest places. Ted Robbins, NPR News.

HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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