The Global Contest for Talent and Brains

This week’s Economist magazine features a 15-page special report, “The Battle for Brainpower,” on the growing importance of highly skilled workers in the global economy. As high-tech goods and sophisticated services account for growing shares of world output and trade, attracting talented, skilled, and educated workers is becoming more important for U.S. companies wanting to stay competitive in global markets. Although America remains the most attractive market for such talent, our national immigration policies are proving to be a handicap.

While most other countries are easing restrictions on the entry of skilled workers, the U.S. Congress maintains an absurdly low cap on H1-B visas of 65,000 a year. The number is so low compared to demand that the visas are snapped up months before the fiscal year begins.

The Economist warns that America could be losing out in the global contest for talent. Consider the contributions that foreign-born workers have made to America’s high-tech economy. According to the report:

Half the Americans who won Nobel prizes in physics in the past seven years were born abroad. More than half the people with Ph.D.s working in American are immigrants. A quarter of Silicon Valley companies were started by Indians and Chinese. Intel, Sun Microsystems and Google were all founded or co-founded by immigrants. But now India and China are sucking back their expats, and America’s European competitors have woken up to the importance or retaining their talent. To cap it all, the immigration authorities [in the United States] are making life harder for foreigners.

The 109th Congress failed to enact meaningful immigration reform to allow more low-skilled immigrants to enter the Untied States legally. An even bigger failure was its neglect of our need to attract and keep more highly skilled workers from abroad.