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CHICAGO-Sam Zell claims he may be the lone optimist in the real estate industry, but the Equity Office Properties Trust and Equity Residential boss was sobered during a recent trip to India. Halfway around the world, he saw offices full of recent college graduates manning telephones for US companies.

The difference, though, is the Indian college graduates earn between $3,000 to $5,000 a year, about 85% less than the earnings of US workers they are increasingly replacing. “The person they’re replacing in the US is a high-school educated person,” Zell noted during a special presentation at RealShare Chicago,a conference series sponsored by Real Estate Media, Inc., which drew nearly 500 professionals Thursday.

“Intellectual outsourcing is a larger threat to the US,” Zell says, worse than the exodus of manufacturing jobs overseas. “Our world is going to constantly be impacted by events outside our domain.”

Despite the Daley administration’s best efforts to retain jobs within the city limits, it still led the US in job loss last year. On one hand, planning and development commissioner Alicia Berg noted in a keynote address, it represented a 1.4% drop in a labor pool of 4 million workers. However, those leasing office space and developing buildings do the math differently.

The loss was more than 50,000 jobs, figures the Beitler Co. CIO Donald Shapiro. Using even a shrinking yardstick of 200 sf per worker, that adds up to more than 10 million sf of expendable office space, according to his math.

“We just need to get 50,000 jobs back to get back to where we were,” says Shapiro, referring to the days when Downtown office vacancy rates were less than 10%.

Steven Fifield’s Fifield Cos. has begun shifting into the multifamily arena, but it is developing a 400,000 sf West Loop office building with the Chicago Transit Authority as the anchor tenant. He is among those who wonder if the job loss is part of a structural corporate change where the positions are gone forever.

While Zell’s global view may give professionals working in the city some pause, it is worse outside the city limits, he suggests. “I don’t think I’d want to be the owner of low-rise suburban office buildings,” he says.

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