MACON, Mo. — Shane Mayes figured out a way to outsmart globalization and hire U.S. workers, but he may have a harder time competing with robots. Like other employers, he sees the rise of artificial intelligence as a major potential disrupter — and he's scrambling to respond.

But Mayes is used to challenges.

Back in 2005, Mayes moved to this small town about 60 miles north of Columbia, Mo. because his new wife, Lisa, wanted to attend A.T. Still University in nearby Kirksville. Mayes, then 32, wasn't sure what he'd do for a living.

When he worked for Elsevier, a major publisher with a big presence in St. Louis County, he'd seen jobs outsourced to India. That gave him an idea.
Many small towns in rural America, battered by recessions and globalization, saw factory jobs disappear, and for many, that meant fewer opportunities.

In Macon, the loss of the Toastmaster factory in 2001 eliminated more than 600 jobs from the local economy.

Mayes figured if companies could ship work overseas in search of cheap labor, perhaps they could find what they were looking for in distressed communities in their own backyards.

Telecommunications and computers now make it possible to locate some work anywhere on the planet — and that's especially true for information technology. If an IT specialist can work from India, he or she could also work in rural America, where the cost of living is still relatively low and jobs are in high demand.

His plan was to launch a company to provide IT services that would be staffed by displaced workers he'd train. His first obstacles: He didn't have any money, and his credit was rocky.

Mayes found an angel in Frank Withrow, who at the time was Macon County's economic development director. Withrow helped him secure a $52,400 loan from the city of Macon and another for $52,400 from the Mark Twain Revolving Loan Fund in 2005.

"I used to have a daily newspaper and was in a similar situation when I started, and somebody believed in me, so I believed in him," Withrow said.

Today, the company Mayes launched, Onshore Outsourcing, employs 380 people who do work for some of the nation's biggest corporations. Clients have included national giants such as Nike, Commerce Bank, and JPMorgan as well as big St. Louis area-based employers Panera, Centene, Ameren, and Mallinckrodt.

Onshore Outsourcing identifies workers by offering an eight-week crash course on programming, customer service, and software testing. The top students get hired by the company, where they develop, test, and support software applications for clients.

"People love the Onshore value proposition, what we stand for, so they will give us opportunities that we are not accustomed to," Mayes said. "We end up with a very diverse service portfolio because our clients have asked us to do this stuff."

Onshore Outsourcing has a number of things going for it. The workforce it draws on is relatively stable and low cost. Mayes says the average salary is about $35,000 (but can rise to $80,000 for more experienced software developers). And a U.S.-based workforce is attractive to corporations with security concerns.

Despite the success, Mayes is worried.

"Onshore is winning with all the new business all the time, and everybody is doing great. My fear is that it is shortsighted," Mayes said.

According to the recent study by BMC Software, 73 percent of IT decision makers believe businesses that do not embrace IT automation to achieve the larger digital-business strategy within the next five years will cease to exist in 10 years.

"Automation in a human-outsourcing business is not a good place to be," Mayes said. "In order to prepare ourselves well for the future, we have to attack these technologies."

Fear of automation pushed Mayes to launch a new subsidiary, OTS Digital, where employees are tasked with developing new technology. The company, based in the U.S. Virgin Islands, was started in January and currently has two employees.

"The Virgin Islands is a good place to attract people and hire talent," Mayes said. "To be slightly divergent and be able to offer a different lifestyle for some of the employees, I decided to go in a different direction."

One of the recent creations of OTS Digital is a natural-language generation engine that converts the human voice into a machine-readable language and helps find articles to troubleshoot customers' problems. The system is supposed to give a customer a suitably helpful article before they stop talking.

However, more sophisticated problems may require agent assistance.

"Does that go against our model of creating more jobs? Well, yeah, it does. But I would much rather be a master of that problem than a blind victim," Mayes said.

Automation of tech-support call centers is one of the examples of how robots will replace IT workers. Dr. Cem Karacal, an associate dean of the School of Engineering at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, predicts that customer call centers will fade and be replaced with mobile devices automated by virtual agents. However, he argues that it does not mean that jobs from the IT sector will disappear.

"It may sound like the use of AI [artificial intelligence] applications will result in losses in terms of the jobs, but I think it will change the nature of the IT jobs from data processing and writing queries to a database to information generation and intelligent use of generated information that will provide businesses advantages," Karacal said. "The skill sets required by IT workers will be more into AI techniques and end use of information."

Mayes admits that the fear of automation and uncertainty of the future prevented him from adding more jobs in Macon.

"We could be adding so many jobs right now, we are moving very deliberately, in a very measured way because I feel responsible for every family that works here," Mayes said.