IBM stops disclosing U.S. headcount data

Despite U.S. layoffs last year, IBM global headcount grows slightly

IBM says it is the No. 1 technology employer in the U.S. and the world, but as time moves on, it may be harder to tell just what is happening to its domestic workforce.

IBM has stopped providing breakouts of the number of employees it has in the U.S., and in doing so is closing a door to data that provided insights into this bellwether company's employment shift. Over the years, IBM workforce data showed accelerating overseas hiring, especially in India, and a steadily declining U.S. workforce.

In its most recently released annual report, the company only provides its global headcount. Overall, IBM finished 2009 with 399,409 employees worldwide, up by 0.2%, or just short of 1,000, from 2008.

IBM's U.S. workforce, according to the latest data from last fall, which appeared in congressional testimony, is 105,000. In 2007, IBM employed 121,000 people in the U.S.

The Alliance@IBM/CWA Local 1701, which has been trying to win bargaining rights for employees, has estimated that the company laid off about 10,000 U.S. workers last year and it says IBM has recently cut about 2,900 jobs in another layoff.

Asked about the change in the way it provides employment numbers in its annual report, an IBM spokesman said in a note that "our competitors report headcount globally. Going forward we will report it globally."

It is true that many high-tech companies only disclose aggregate headcount data, but some go a little further. Microsoft Corp., for instance, reported that as of June last year it employed approximately 93,000 people -- 56,000 in the U.S. and 37,000 internationally. In 2008, it reported headcount of 91,000, with 55,000 in the U.S. and 36,000 internationally.

Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, said the workforce data is critical to helping policymakers understand the dynamics of offshoring. "By hiding its offshoring, IBM is doing a disservice to America -- through omission the company is providing misleading labor market signals and information to policymakers," Hira said.

IBM is trying to convince the government to allocate funds and establish policies that would help increase the number of STEM (or science, technology, engineering and math) graduates in the U.S., and it's also calling on Washington to raise the cap on H-1B visas, said Hira. "Yet at the same time," he added, "IBM is actually decreasing its demand of that same labor."

Hira said he believes that Congress should ask companies to disclose their offshoring programs. "With better information and transparency, we'd all be better off -- workers would understand where there are opportunities (and where there are not), taxpayers would understand where their tax dollars are flowing (especially stimulus dollars), and policymakers could better respond to offshoring," he said.

Hira also argues that the shift overseas makes clear how critical the tax deferral on foreign profits is to IBM's bottom line and why the company is opposing President Barack Obama's "proposal to end the tax breaks that encourage firms to move American jobs overseas," he said.

IBM was one of a long list of companies opposing changes in the tax deferral rules in a letter to congressional leaders last year. The letter argued that repeal of the deferral "will result in a loss of jobs for Americans and serious negative impacts on the U.S. economy."

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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