Coloured arrows

Professional migration trends

With the global economic zones variously swelling and shrinking at alarming rates, where does that leave the tide of talent? E&T investigates global migration trends and their effect on the dispersion of skills.

There is a global war being waged for talent. It pits capital against labour, the developed world against the developing, and south against north. But where is this war being fought? Who are its foot-soldiers? And is it right to call it a war at all?

One of the battlefronts is lined with Chinese graduates seeking overseas experience. Another features Indian students on their way to MIT or Indian technologists leaving Silicon Valley to start businesses back home. Then there are the eastern Europeans scouring western Europe for opportunities, as well as the recession-hit youth of Ireland, marching once again along the routes their parents took in the 1980s.

All are looking for the best places to develop their experience and apply their skills, some with a mind to make a life there, others with every intention of eventually taking their newly wrought skills home.

Sizing up the enemy

So how many global migrants are there? The most recent UN data says that 214 million people live outside their home countries, out of a global population of 6.9 billion. Of this, 58 per cent come from the developing world and 128 million live in the developed world. Migration to the developed world has been slowing since 2007 because of the recession, but overall migration is still rising.

According to a paper on international migration released at the end of 2010 by the OECD, 43.6 per cent of migrants have low skills, 35 per cent have intermediate skills and 21.5 per cent have high skills. Put another way, 24 per cent of those migrating to OECD countries have a tertiary education. The authors add: 'The emigration rate for highly skilled persons exceeds the total emigration rate in all regions, which reflects the selective nature of migration.'

What do these skilled migrants do? According to a 2006 analysis by America's National Science Foundation, naturalised or non-US citizens accounted for nearly 25 per cent of the working population of doctoral scientists and engineers in America. Dig into the figures and the results are even more striking – at the doctoral level, 45.1 per cent of America's IT specialists, 47 per cent of all engineers and 53.4 per cent of electrical and computer engineers weren't born there.

The figures are not quite so stark for Britain. According to the UK's Migration Advisory Committee, 20 per cent of information and computer technologists, 21 per cent of research professionals and 28 per cent of health professionals working in the UK were not born there.

Feeling the force

So what impact does migration, especially of the highly skilled, have? The literature suggests that there are three ways of looking at the issue: skilled migration causes a brain gain, a brain drain or a brain circulation. Each is true – in part.

For countries such as the US and the UK, the arrival of highly skilled migrants helps strengthen the science and engineering base, as well as contributing to the upkeep of higher education through fees.

There's a public relations value too. A letter sent by the vice chancellors of 16 universities to the Observer newspaper in March noted: 'International students bring extensive cultural and political benefits to the UK. When they return to their countries at the end of their studies, they become cultural and economic ambassadors for the UK.'

The number of countries that gain in this way seems limited, though, according to Ron Skeldon, professorial fellow in the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex. In 2000, 85 per cent of the skilled migrants in the OECD were based in just six countries – the US, Canada, Australia, the UK, Germany and France.

What about the countries from which the skilled migrate? According to figures in the OECD working paper, 5.44 per cent of the world's migrants had a tertiary education. The distribution is skewed, though: 10.56 per cent of African and 8.79 per cent of Latin-American emigrants had this level of education, compared with just 0.76 per cent of North American emigrants.

'The highest rates of highly skilled migration are observed for the smallest and/or poorest countries,' said the paper's authors. For several countries – Barbados, Guyana, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Belize, Mauritius and Tonga – more than half of their most skilled people live abroad.

This is obviously bad for these countries but there are nuances. For example, the latest UN figures suggest that remittances from migrants to low- and middle-income countries reached $336bn in 2008.

The picture seems clearer cut when health professionals are lured from developing countries to tend to the developed world. According to NHS Employers, which represents health trusts in England, the NHS has had a code of practice on recruitment from developing countries since 2001 that 'seeks to prevent targeted recruitment from developing nations who are experiencing shortages of healthcare staff'.

Drain, gain or circulation?

Does skilled migration always mean a brain drain? According to Skeldon, the debate over the 'brain drain' has been going on for more than 40 years and isn't settled yet.

Louis Turner, who runs the Asia-Pacific Technology Network, says: 'Increasingly it is a circulation.'

Turner says that the Indians who blazed a trail to Silicon Valley in the 1980s did so because they felt stifled by their country's bureaucracy. Some are now returning, in part because entrepreneurs sense that India's rapidly changing environment will give them more room to manoeuvre.

China's story is more complex. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, the government realised that it needed more professionals to help modernise its economy and agriculture. China started encouraging people to study abroad. Premier Deng Xiaoping dismissed concerns that they wouldn't return, arguing that if 100 out of 1,000 stayed abroad, China would still gain 900 professionals.

It hasn't worked out that well. According to Cong Cao, who directs the Center for Science, Technology and Innovation in China at New York's Levin Institute, China has a real brain drain. In a 2008 paper for the journal Asian Population Studies, he wrote that between 1978 and 2007, 1.21 million Chinese went abroad to study or do research, but only about a quarter came back.

'There is little doubt that the best and the brightest have not returned,' he writes. Cao argues that this is due to the 'opportunity cost' of returning: Chinese academics can get better wages, facilities and education for their children and spouses abroad. They face other hurdles, too, such as the lack of guanxi, or the network of connections and obligations that is so important to life in Chinese organisations, which can dwindle while they are away. They may also worry about rising corruption and the lack of a meritocracy in Chinese academic life.

Turner says Chinese businesspeople may face their own problems on their return: 'In China there seems to be a certain amount of resentment against those who've been to Silicon Valley and come back, maybe because they appear too Westernised and arrogant.'

Shifting centre

Globalisation has connected pools of talent in what you might regard as unlikely places to companies that can apply their skills on the world stage. Siemens, for example, now has branches of its corporate research group in St Petersburg and Moscow, where they work on nanomaterials, dependable software and machine monitoring, close to potential customers and partners.

Silicon Valley company eSilicon, which helps chip-design companies get chips made, bought a design tool company in Romania some years ago and is now opening a facility in a major university town near its HQ. More recently, eSilicon bought a company based in Ho Chi Minh City and Danang in Vietnam, which employs 180 people designing memory blocks for leading-edge chips.

'The intention is to use that critical mass as a springboard for doing other things,' says Paul Hollingworth, vice-president of strategic marketing at eSilicon.

It's little wonder that with useful talent in unexpected places and a global recession hitting the developed world harder than the fast-growing economies of South East Asia, the centre of gravity of technology development is shifting.

UNESCO's Science Report 2010 says that the developed world's share of the global research population increased from 29.8 per cent in 2002 to 37.4 per cent in 2007. America's share has fallen from 28 per cent to 25.4 per cent, Europe's from 32.2 per cent to 29.5 per cent, while Asia's rose from 35.5 per cent to 40.1 per cent. China's share increased from 13.9 per cent to 19.7 per cent, as the global population of researchers grew from 5.8 million to 7.2 million.

The report adds: 'Data shows that south to north and north to north are dominant directions for migration but that, overall, a much more varied array of destinations is emerging: South Africa, Russia, Ukraine, Malaysia and Jordan have become attractive destinations for the highly skilled.'

War and warriors?

So is there really a global war for talent, with hardy young postgraduates and gnarly old industrialists in its glittering vanguard? Probably not. The war, instead, is for access to the best talent, which is a different thing.

For countries which want to access global talent, the key is to present themselves as good places to study and work, and good places for talent to remain engaged with, even when they have moved on.

For companies which want to attract the best talent, ensuring that they offer an environment in which people can do their best work will be important. If talent won't come to them, then it is important to be able to accommodate people where they want to be, as eSilicon has in Vietnam and Romania.

For individuals, the trick will be to think of themselves as repositories of 'human capital', to use the HR jargon, and to ensure that they allocate their capital where it can be used most effectively.

Further information

Recent articles

Info Message

Our sites use cookies to support some functionality, and to collect anonymous user data.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them

Close