The Global Fight for Talent
By Demetrios G. Papademetriou
Washington Post Tuesday , March 21, 2000
While we are again showing how not to have the right conversation about foreign-born high-tech workers (people who come
into this country on the H-1B visa), the rest of the developed world is waking up to the fact that America's cherry-picking of
international tech talent amounts to an enormous competitive advantage, one that, if left unchallenged, could extend U.S.
dominance in information technology indefinitely.
Our competitors are doing something about it. Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, among others, have
already entered or are preparing to enter the sweepstakes for high-tech workers. This month, after a quarter-century of
near-abstinence on recruiting foreign workers, Germany indicated that it would tap the global talent pool to meet the labor
needs of its information and communications sectors. Chancellor Schroeder and key members of his cabinet pledged to support
offering term-limited employment to as many as 30,000 foreign high-tech workers recruited from outside the European Union.
This despite unemployment rates that continue to hover at about 10 percent and opposition by the federal labor minister, who
argues that many of the unemployed could be retrained to do the jobs that have been going begging. Sound familiar?
Similarly, Canada is about to liberalize access to high-tech workers, without most of the regulatory obstacles placed on U.S.
employers in 1998. Australia has made such a large allocation of high-end temporary visas to its business community that firms
cannot fill all the slots. And the UK has experienced such exceptional growth in the temporary immigration of highly qualified
foreigners that it is considering opening up the front door of its permanent immigration system to such workers and their
What is going on? Three interrelated explanations come readily to mind. First, in the information age, the demand for what
Robert Reich has called "knowledge workers," far outpaces the supply of such workers--partly because the education and
training systems of the developed world have been slow in adapting to the new economy. Simultaneously, a number of
countries are producing very well-trained technical graduates at least in part "for export" (India) or simply have temporary
surpluses of such workers because of severe market and other failures (Russia or, until recently, Ireland).
Second, at the cutting edge of the information revolution, process-heavy training programs, such as Germany's apprenticeship
system, may now ill-serve many of their graduates. Such programs have been producing workers well-suited to the capital
goods-producing sectors. But as those industries seek more favorable tax and regulatory environments abroad, the workers
they leave behind are not prepared to compete in post-industrial economies that value flexibility and lifelong learning seemingly
above all else. Hence the paradox of high unemployment (often among otherwise well-trained and educated people) coexisting
with severe shortfalls of information workers.
Third, the "just-in-time" approach to getting certain types of talented foreign workers, long practiced by the United States, is
now spreading--just as it did with the management of inventories in the manufacturing sector a decade or so ago.
These new realities suggest that the United States do three things differently on H-1Bs. First, we should keep our eyes fixed on
what is best for all of us by using the political energy of the issue to coax business into improving working conditions for all,
while inviting it to constantly reevaluate its worker needs and the place of foreigners in them. In the process, we should focus on
developing visa requirements that are clear and consistent with the visa's intent, procedures that are completely transparent and
outcomes that are predictable and timely.
Second, if high-end temporary visa classes are drawn carefully and reviewed periodically and impartially, numerical limits
should become nearly irrelevant. Numerical limits, because they've become the equivalent of waving a cape in front of a bull,
defer the more meaningful conversations about how best to use immigration to strengthen our competitiveness and how best to
engage our training and educational institutions in that common effort. And they have the perverse effect of fueling a feeding
frenzy as firms apply for visas early in the fiscal year so as to protect themselves from the likely visa shortfall later on--thus
virtually guaranteeing that the shortfall will occur.
Finally, we should adjust our thinking--and our permanent immigration system--to the reality that competition for talented
foreigners will become much more intense. In such an environment, the "total package" a firm offers may well be the deciding
factor in which offer a worker accepts. Primarily, that should mean that we must continue to offer the best environment for
intellectual and business entrepreneurship. But a permanent visa for those who prove themselves and play by the rules is also
likely to become an essential part of that package--and we should be able to accommodate that.
The writer is co-director of the International Migration Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.