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A scholar examines the rewards and shortcomings of skilled immigration in the United States

The Gift of Global Talent: How Migration Shapes Business, Economy & Society

William R. Kerr
Stanford University Press
2018
256 pp.
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What is the world’s most precious resource? It can’t be held, it can’t be mined—it’s even hard to clearly define. It exists in every country in the world but also continually moves across borders. Although it can bring wealth and economic prosperity, not a single war has been fought over it, and some nations even take steps to block its entry. The answer is human talent.

William Kerr’s The Gift of Global Talent reveals that much of America’s prosperity can be traced to its long history as a leading destination for skilled immigrants. More than half of college-educated immigrants to nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) end up in the United States, and immigrant contributions to American science, invention, and entrepreneurship have been remarkable. More than a third of the country’s Nobel Prize winners, 40% of the founders of its Fortune 500 companies, and half of its residents with science and engineering doctorates hail from overseas.

However, the key to success isn’t as simple as opening borders. Kerr elucidates two important principles that underlie the particular talent necessary to foster innovation and economic growth. First, the influx of talent must create goods and services that can reach customers worldwide. Second, foreign-born talent must be enhanced by the presence of other talented individuals. The clustering of tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, for example, helps enhance everyone’s productivity as complex ideas and tacit knowledge are shared and readily accessible. It is this type of talent that the United States has succeeded in attracting from abroad, more effectively than any other nation.

Foreign-born talent in the United States mostly takes the form of scientists and engineers. This is partly because science and engineering knowledge is globally portable and is less inhibited by language or cultural barriers than other forms of knowledge, but it is also due to immigration policy.

Kerr provides an insightful contrast of the strong role played by employers in selecting talent within the H-1B program, comparing it with the admissions policies in other nations. Canada’s “points-based” system, for example, awards entry on the basis of broadly defined skills and provides no role for employers; whereas the employer-dominant H-1B visa system provides incentives for firms to invest in finding talent and a clear pathway to jobs for immigrants, but is far less transparent than many other systems.

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America has long been a desirable destination for skilled immigrants.

While Kerr spends much time detailing why and how skilled immigrants have benefited the United States, several recent cases paint a different picture. In one such case, the Disney company required American internet technology workers to train their H-1B replacements before being laid off (1).

Kerr acknowledges that the gains from skilled immigration may also be accompanied by negative consequences for native-born workers and provides a comprehensive but succinct overview of the academic research on this topic. The consensus appears to be that the positive effects of skilled immigrants on American job prospects appear over long horizons, whereas in the short-term, the H-1B program may cause worker displacement. In addition, whereas young Americans may benefit from the increased talent from abroad, older workers may never see such gains.

Although not explicitly addressed, certain features of U.S. institutions—such as good governance, political stability, and strong intellectual property laws—are also necessary for skilled immigrants to flourish and push innovative boundaries. Other nations hoping to replicate the U.S. experience by attracting global talent may end up on an entirely different path. Readers wishing for a more global perspective on the gifts and consequences of global talent must look elsewhere: This book maintains a U.S.-centric perspective.

Kerr is masterful at distilling the key findings of hundreds of complex academic studies in just a few words. He tells his story using anecdotes, case studies, and analogies—a tooth fairy payment schedule for his young son, for example, becomes an analogy for exponential technological growth—and his delivery is humorous and captivating.

Kerr concludes with important suggestions for skilled immigration policy that should be required reading for every U.S. legislator. For example, he suggests that lengthening the application period and indexing the number of H-1B visas to an economic index rather than a hard cap can help mitigate bottlenecks and incentivize firms to seek out truly exceptional talent. Redistribution from those who gain the most can protect the American workers that might be displaced.

Despite the gains we’ve achieved from skilled immigration to the United States, current anti-immigrant sentiment threatens to stop inflows of global talent. There are steps we can and should take to protect American workers that do not require walling ourselves off from the benefits from global talent.

References

  1. Tribune news services, Chicago Tribune, 14 December 2016; www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-disney-workers-discrimination-lawsuit-20161214-story.html.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Economics, Queens College, City University of New York, Queens, NY 11367, USA.