Which countries are winning the global talent war?

Who is winning the talent war?

The US, UK, Canada and Australia dominate international skilled migration. Now other nations want to get their share of the talent.

Skills matter more than ever in today’s economy, and one result has been to lure more high-skilled people from one country to another. A new study in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (JEP), by Sari Pekkala Kerr, William Kerr, Christopher Parsons and World Bank economist Çaglar Özden, sketches out just how far that process has gone.

How big is the skilled migration boom? The authors of the JEP article estimate that about 28 million high-skilled migrants were living in countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2010, up nearly 130 per cent since 1990. The growth in low-skilled migrants over the same period was just 40 per cent.

Rich countries, particularly those in the 35-member OECD, are obviously attractive to smart, educated people in low-income nations. Many high-income countries, however, have also taken deliberate steps to make themselves more attractive to such migrants. These nations believe high-skilled people will help drive economic growth.

The Big Four of skilled migration

The JEP article underlines just how often migrants head for the countries that make up the “Big Four” of skilled migration: the US, UK, Canada and Australia. These countries offer not only high incomes but also the English language – spoken or understood by many migrants – and other benefits. Between them, the authors say, the Big Four have been taking 70 per cent of all high-skilled migrants to OECD nations. In 2010, the US alone took almost 40 per cent.

The long US record of putting immigrant minds to work shows in its record of Nobel Prizes: in the past 40 years, individuals associated with US institutions have won almost two-thirds of all Nobel Prizes, yet more than half of those winners were born outside the US. Of the six winners of Nobel Prizes affiliated with US universities so far this year, none was born in the US. The US also attracts a disproportionately large number of migrating inventors, patent data says.

In a few places, skilled migrants actually dominate particular industries: they make up 70 per cent of software engineers in Silicon Valley, 60 per cent of medical practitioners in Western Australia and 45 per cent of all Australian scientists, according to recent estimates.

Particular industries also attract experts from around the world: Hollywood filmmaking has pulled in the likes of Denmark’s Alicia Vikander, Kenya’s Lupita Nyong’o and Australia’s Nicole Kidman, while Spain’s LaLiga football competition has attracted Argentine Lionel Messi, Brazilian Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior and Uruguayan Luis Suárez to just one team, FC Barcelona.

“Many skilled workers migrate, gain new skills, and then return home to use their expertise.”

Skilled migration has been particularly attractive for women; in 2010, say the authors, there were more high-skilled female migrants than high-skilled male migrants in OECD countries. Other research suggests these numbers are driven by the positive climate for women in the countries to which most skilled women emigrate.

The Big Four are also the locations of 69 of the world’s 100 top universities as ranked by the China-based Academic Ranking of World Universities. That helps them to attract talented youngsters who learn, stay and work, the authors say.

On the other hand, they note, another study suggests that when countries tighten the availability of visas for high-skilled immigrants – as the US did in 2003 – the skill levels of immigrants fall.

Countries in continental Europe – including France, Germany and Spain – are now trying to attract skilled migrants, too. An OECD report released in July 2016 describes migrants coming to Europe as “younger and less well-educated than those in other OECD destinations”.

It recommends that Europe be made easier for talented foreigners to enter, with simpler migration processes, and that it should promote itself as a destination for “highly qualified third country nationals”.

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Brain circulation

Economic development experts have long worried that skilled migration robs countries of their best and brightest – a “brain drain”. 

That’s a concern not just in less-developed economies such as Bangladesh, Romania, Venezuela and Pakistan, but in struggling high-income nations such as Italy, where many skilled workers have been leaving and few have been arriving.

Yet studies of such brain drains have sometimes found that it looks more like “brain circulation”, a term coined by technology workforce expert AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Information. She has shown that many skilled workers migrate, gain new skills, and then return home to use their expertise in their country of origin.

California’s Silicon Valley information technology industry, for instance, has been central to the success of the Chinese and Indian IT industries. The authors report that even those foreign-born technology workers who choose to stay in the valley manage to connect their home nations to a rich source of knowledge and capital. 

In short, global talent movement can be a win-win.

The skilled migration boom

Australia pioneered skill-based migration in the 1980s, and many countries are now following a similar strategy. A 2013 United Nations report says 40 per cent of countries reported policies to raise immigration of high-skilled workers, up from 22 per cent in 2005.

Canada and the UK have adopted Australia’s points-based immigration system, which takes into account factors such as language skills, educational qualifications and work history. China has a National Talent Development Plan aimed at helping its transition to an innovation-driven economy. Singapore, according to the Journal of Economic Perspectives, regularly fine-tunes its policies, keeping them in line with labour market needs – a process it calls “immigration engineering”. Malaysia uses a Returning Expert Programme to provide tax incentives to encourage high-skilled Malaysians in other nations to come back to their homeland.

Such programs seem to make sense. A World Bank study released in September 2016 says the Malaysian program, for example, costs only a modest amount and probably pays for itself.

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