Trouble with customer service - Billy Corriher

John Edwards' emergence as the last serious challenger to John Kerry's claim to the Democratic nomination for president has fueled a lot of discussion from the two senators about free trade and the loss of American jobs.

Edwards' campaign has relied largely on frustration with American jobs going overseas, a problem that has plagued his home state, North Carolina, and its struggling textile industry.

Edwards and Kerry (who supported the North American Free Trade Agreement) say that nothing can be done to stop American jobs from going overseas in our globalized economy.

Both candidates support tougher labor and environmental standards for international trade. And while tougher standards would make foreign labor more expensive, it would probably still be cheaper than paying Americans for the same jobs.

As one of Edwards' fellow North Carolinians, I've seen firsthand the consequences of Ross Perot's infamous "sucking sound" of domestic jobs going abroad. In high school I had a part-time job in a textile mill, one of many in my hometown.

When I started working there in 1997, the effects of NAFTA were already apparent, and though the mill lasted longer than most in the area, it shut down shortly after I left for college.

With so many manufacturing jobs going south (and east), workers were told to get jobs in information technology or the service industry. Supporters of NAFTA touted the benefits of a global trade system and the transformation of America's economy.

Free trade advocates maintain that the country is exporting more and getting cheaper imports, but with unemployment rates still high, we're hearing about more and more white-collar jobs being sent abroad. Customer service representatives in Southeast Asia can answer questions from clients in our country, and the market for information technology jobs is being flooded with well-educated foreign workers.

This "outsourcing" has led many to wonder what the American job market will look like after 20 more years of free trade. Economists say that new jobs will emerge to take the place of any lost jobs, but unemployed Americans don't want to wait.

The Democratic Party (and the GOP to some degree) is paying more attention to outsourcing now that it's hitting the middle class, but real solutions are hard to come by.

Many Americans have given up on manufacturing jobs, and some are now saying white-collar jobs are in jeopardy. If you can block out the politicians' shallow sound bites and put your ear to the ground, you might hear a loud sucking sound.

Billy Corriher covers politics and government for the News Daily. He can be reached at bcorriher@news-daily.com or (770) 478-5753 Ext. 281.