IBM workforce cuts raise questions

NY Gov. Cuomo says state has deal with IBM to preserve jobs, but questions arise about what the pact really means

IBM is laying off employees this week, a job action that began in a curious way.

IBM won't disclose the number of cuts, calling the layoffs part of a "rebalancing" of its workforce as it invest in new technologies. The company points out that at any given time it has more than 3,000 jobs openings in the U.S.

The layoffs may have begun in earnest today. The website at the Alliance@IBM, part of the Communications Workers of America union, was hard to access this morning; a union union organizer said the delays are due to high traffic to its site from IBM employees and others.

Lee Conrad, a national coordinator for the Alliance, estimates that between 4,000 to 6,000 IBM U.S. jobs may be at risk in the latest move, a figure based on previous job actions and IBM's restructuring goal of $1 billion.

Even though the latest round of layoffs was expected, the week began with an announcement by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo that IBM had agreed to create new jobs, as well as maintain minimum staffing levels in the state.

There was nothing in the statement announcing the move about a pending job action, and appeared timed to try to blunt the impact of a layoff.

Specifically, Cuomo said, the state had reached "a major agreement" with IBM to "maintain 3,100 high-tech jobs in the Hudson Valley and surrounding areas. The company has committed to increase its minimum job commitment to the state by 750 jobs, and maintain the 3,100 jobs through the end of 2016."

The statement did not disclose the number of employees that IBM now has in the Hudson Valley area.

IBM is believed to employ about 7,000 workers at its Poughkeepsie and East Fishkill facilities. That estimate is from Dutchess County spokeswoman, who said IBM is the county's largest employer.

Conrad said the governor's announcement raises some questions for workers and the region. "Yes, you're trying to protect 3,100 jobs but what about the other 3,900 jobs?" he said.

The New York governor's office did not respond to a Computerworld request for comment on the IBM layoffs and the agreement.

When asked, IBM referred all questions to the governor's office.

In a statement, IBM spokesman Douglas Shelton said that "IBM continues to rebalance its workforce to meet the changing requirements of its clients, and to pioneer new, high value segments of the IT industry."

Shelton said that IBM is positioning itself to lead in, among other areas, cloud computing, analytics and cognitive computing. He pointed to a $1 billion investment in its new Watson unit and the decision to spend $1.2 billion to expand its global cloud footprint.

In addition, IBM this week announced a $1 billion investment in boosting its platform-as-a-service cloud capabilities, as well as further investments in nanotechnology and othe rareas.

As part of the minimum staffing agreement, Cuomo also announced that the IBM and the state are jointly investing in nanotechnology, and that IBM plans to create some 500 new jobs in Buffalo.

At one time IBM regularly disclosed the number of employees it had in the U.S., but stopped doing so several years ago as the number declined.

The main source of information about IBM's U.S. employment base has been the Alliance, gathers documents from workers that detail cuts in the various business units. But this information pipeline may be disappearing.

Conrad said Wednesday that IBM has changed how it releases information, something he called a "distributing development."

IBM employees received documents listing the age, title and number of employees selected for a job cut. These resource action documents, as they are called, no longer include this information, said Conrad.

This data "is how we validated and counted the numbers that we gave you in past job cuts," said Conrad. "IBM clearly does not want us, you or other employees to know the depth and scope of today's cuts."

The Alliance website site, by mid-afternoon, did show 150 jobs cuts in Essex Junction, Vt., and 10 to 15 in Endicott. The Alliance also posted anonymous reports on its Website that show much larger layoff figures.

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 email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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