There’s a global race for business, STEM, academic, and other talent, and the United States is at risk of falling behind. In some ways, U.S. business schools are in the vanguard of change, seeing levels of reduced international interest that signal a shift in the competitive landscape. Is it a permanent one? William Kerr, a Harvard Business School professor, has written a book exploring the worldwide competition for the best and brightest — where we’ve been, where we are, and where we may be going.
Kerr, who earned his Ph.D. from MIT in 2005 and began teaching at HBS that year, works with companies and governments worldwide on accessing and leveraging global talent. For nearly 20 years he has studied how the migration of talented individuals has transformed the U.S. economy and influenced and reshaped society as a whole. Now, with The Gift of Global Talent: How Migration Shapes Business, Economy & Society, he explores how the U.S. is being divided by an ugly, seemingly intractable debate on immigration, and how that and other factors are helping the rest of the world — especially China and India — rapidly catch up.
The future, Kerr says, is uncertain.
“It’s amazing how little we know about this phenomenon of talent migration, even though it’s one of the most important things shaping our economy right now,” Kerr tells Poets&Quants. “We always know much more about stuff being shipped on boats than we do about knowledge workers in airplanes.”
THE U.S. IS ‘AN EDUCATION MACHINE FOR GLOBAL TALENT’
In a work that Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California and former Secretary of Homeland Security, calls “a clear-eyed exposition of how talent moves around the world and why so much lands in the United States,” Kerr combines insights from business practice, government policy, and individual decision-making to examine popular ideas and research across such fields as entrepreneurship and economic policy. His book, set to be published by Stanford University Press on October 2, explores why talent migration drives the knowledge economy, how universities and firms govern skilled admissions, the controversies of the H-1B visa, and the economic inequalities — and “superstar” companies — that global talent flows produce. Among the salient questions raised in Kerr’s book: Why does so much tech talent cluster in the San Francisco Bay Area?
The Gift of Global Talent doesn’t stop there, going further to examine the leadership choice the U.S. now faces on immigration and exploring how the country can yet become more competitive for attracting tomorrow’s talent.
“I spend a fair amount of time walking through the impact talent migration has had on United States’ invention and entrepreneurship — everything from the amount of invention that comes from immigrants these days to how it has reshaped American economic geography and how it’s impacted large companies,” Kerr says. “And then I have a chapter devoted to U.S. visa policy, also discussing how China and India started sending lots of people abroad.
“There are two points here that are obvious but very important. One is around the U.S. immigration system and how the employer-driven aspect of U.S. immigration allowed it to really focus in a hyper way on science and engineering and tech talent through the H-1B visa program and other programs that put employers in charge. And I also talk about universities and how, both at undergrad but especially at graduate levels, the U.S. has become almost an education machine for global talent. This includes the faculty that are in the classrooms and also the rising shares of students that are coming from abroad for Ph.D.s, MBAs, other graduate degrees, and increasingly undergrads. Look, for example, at how the University of California system says, ‘We really need foreign students to pay the bills.'”
CALLING ON TECH TO MAKE THE CASE FOR THE TALENT PIPELINE
Talent migration to the U.S. has not been a wholly positive thing, Kerr notes in his book. “As we talk about all these great growth things that global talent brings, let’s also look at some of the discontent in Silicon Valley, let’s look at regional disparities and how it has impacted voting behavior,” he says. He writes about “superstar firms” like Facebook and Goldman Sachs and McKinsey and Company that may be uniquely suited to employ global talent and that have a massive effect on society, but that also represent a stark picture of inequality. His book concludes with a section on how the U.S. “needs to move forward,” with tech companies playing a significant role. “We have this enormous gift that has been given to us, and given to us often despite our immigration policy rather than because of it. The U.S. has never been ‘user-friendly’ to talent. So I propose some reforms to the H-1B system and the way we give work visas to students and others, and I talk about how the president should tone down the rhetoric toward migration at all levels.
“The tech industry has been an enormous beneficiary of talent migration, and yet Middle America doesn’t see it exactly the same way that the industry does, so they need to help convey better to the world the benefits. Because it is ultimately a political choice that is giving them this ticket to global talent.”
Kerr, co-director of HBS’ Managing the Future of Work initiative which helps business and policy leaders navigate a rapid technological and other change, will return to the MBA classroom in spring 2019. How much of his book will find its way into the curriculum? “A fair chunk, depending on the program,” he says. “I teach some courses that have been about global diaspora, economic clusters, the movement of global talent and how it impacts places.”
Hoping for progress in the seemingly perennially stalled U.S. immigration debate, Kerr recalls that change in the H-1B system seemed imminent — in 2007. “Whatever we begin doing on any of these fronts is going to be played out over a long period of time,” he says. “Whatever we begin doing, whenever we begin doing it, I’m concerned with how we’re going to understand if we make progress. I would love if, four years from now, the book is outdated because we actually did something. But let’s first actually understand what we should be engaged in and what we’re measuring so we understand if we’ve made progress.”