The U.S. faces an immigrant "brain drain" that could deeply affect the future of the Internet in this country.
Multiple forces are influencing immigrant IT professionals in the U.S. to return to their home countries, raising the question: Will we be able to get them back when we finally realize how much we need them?
Let's examine the forces at work in this trend.
The Recession. The current recession is playing a big part in sending skilled workers back home. "A lot of [outsourced] IT workers are returning to their base locations due to cost pressures faced by their clients," says Vikram Ramankutty, a Singapore-based freelance IT consultant with Wipro Technologies. For several years, Wipro has offered expertise in a range of Internet-related areas, such as cellphone software, ISP management tools, virtual worlds, and IPTV.
"The [economic] impact depends on the situation. If a client offshores more work, then the IT worker who returns is still engaged. So there is a cost saving and no loss of know-how. If, however, the client terminates the project altogether, they lose the know-how of the resource and there's no saying if the client can engage that same resource again when markets pick up."
Lures from abroad. Thousands of skilled immigrant professionals are leaving the U.S. for greener pastures elsewhere. "Human resources directors in India and China told us that what was a trickle of returnees a decade ago had become a flood. Job applications from the U.S. had increased tenfold over the last few years," explained Harvard University professor Vivek Wadhwa, in a BusinessWeek article.
Wadhwa conducted a recent Kauffman Foundation study, which found that:
- The most common professional factor motivating workers to return home is the growing demand for their skills in their home countries.
- Returnees also believe that their home countries provide better career opportunities than they can find in America.
Meanwhile, the contours of the global battlefield for talent are rapidly changing, says an article in YaleGlobal Online. "The recent proposal for an EU 'Blue Card' would allow high-skilled workers from outside the European Union to work in multiple EU countries," the article states. "Affected by more rapid population aging than the United States, other OECD countries aggressively work to liberalize their high-skilled immigration laws."
The article cites another lure for Asian immigrants: India and China both offer skilled workers incentives to return home. In China, for example, a "green passage" project started in 2007 gives returnees guaranteed university educations for their children, along with tax benefits.
Restrictive U.S. immigration policies. Another article reports that a provision of the U.S. economic stimulus package would restrict H-1B hiring at companies that have received funds from the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) and have more than 15 percent of their workers on visas. "The current controversy is around U.S. high-tech companies that are laying off workers, but aren't necessarily cutting H-1B visa holders or foreign nationals ahead of U.S. employees," according to the story.
Furthermore, a procedure known as the Technology Alert List may be stranding thousands in their home countries while they wait to return to the U.S., according to another article: "Under the TAL... when a student or a scholar applies for a visa, or seeks to get an extended visa stamped while being in his/her home country, the consular official in that country must decide whether the research area fits any of the categories of the TAL to prevent possible export of 'goods, technology, or sensitive information.' If the official is unsure, s/he may decide to send the visa application to Washington for review... [which] can take months."
Restricting the immigration of highly skilled workers will hurt America's ability to innovate, suggests an Economist article. It discussed a University of Michigan study that found that "when the federal government increased the number of people allowed in under the [H-1B] programme by 10 percent, total patenting increased by around 2 percent in the short run."
There may be no easy answer, but America needs to be aware of the problem if it hopes to keep up enterprise innovation, particularly in Internet-related areas. Even if economic conditions force layoffs, companies need to think ahead to a time when they may badly need extra technical help.
"We may not need all these workers in the U.S. during the deepening recession," warns Harvard's Wadhwa. "But we will need them to help us recover from it."
— Deborah Nason is a freelance writer based in Connecticut.