The New Global Hiring Hall

The free flow of STEM labor around the world is the wave of the future

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In the annual debate over how many foreign engineers should be permitted to work in the United States, one idea is predictably absent: reciprocity.

Top engineers from around the world often find appealing jobs and pay in the United States, but the reverse isn’t necessarily true for equally talented U.S. workers [PDF] seeking engineering jobs abroad. To ensure an even playing field, why not promote a new global ethos of employing U.S. engineers, scientists, and software programmers anywhere in the world?

Promoting a single global employment standard for engineers would help defuse the tense debate over how many foreign engineers should be permitted to work in the United States. Linking work visas for foreign engineers in the United States reciprocally with work visas for U.S. engineers abroad would also reflect the new cosmopolitan reality. Around the world, engineers share common practices, values, and modes of expression—far more than do physicians, lawyers, or teachers. Walling in each nation’s engineers is unwise, especially when the walls arise mainly to please domestic political constituencies.

To be sure, many U.S. engineers will never want employment outside the country. It would be hard to imagine them working in South Korea, for instance, where promotions are few and de rigueur camaraderie means long hours with colleagues both on and off the job. India, most flagrantly, makes the hiring of foreign engineers virtually impossible. And when German companies advertise for engineers in the United States—which they do frequently—they insist on fluency in German as well as English, even though as an everyday matter in most engineering environments, German is no longer essential.

Nevertheless, despite the cultural barriers—and in some cases much lower pay—some U.S. engineers would welcome the chance to work in Australia, China, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, thriving parts of Africa, or Western Europe, particularly if the alternative is unemployment. In those places, critical labor shortages in some technology sectors are exacerbated by rigid restrictions against qualified U.S. workers.

Things may be changing, though. “In China and Malaysia, they are dying for foreigners to show up and ‘dump their brains’ into the local ecosystem,” says Michael Zielenziger, an Asia expert with Oxford Economics, a London consulting firm.

Five factors are behind what may one day become an unstoppable worldwide desire for American engineers:

  1. The hegemony of English in engineering workplaces means that a U.S. worker might have a significant advantage in Shanghai or Munich.

  2. Wage convergence means engineers’ salaries are rising in some parts of the world and stagnating in others. Because of lower living costs in some emerging cities—and the tax holiday for Americans on much of the income they earn abroad—the actual value of a foreign paycheck may be higher than expected.

  3. Half of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa, where the availability of homegrown engineers is small and the pay for foreigners is surprisingly competitive. This year, some U.S. citizens joined an IBM research unit in Nairobi.

  4. Under pressure from the U.S. government, some countries, including China, Germany, and Singapore, are lowering their barriers to imported engineers.

  5. Engineers worldwide are becoming more able to compete. Many engineers in China, Germany, India, and elsewhere have some U.S. education and work experience. If there ever was a need to protect local engineers from U.S. rivals, the need is diminishing.

For engineers around the world, competition with their counterparts in the United States is intensifying in unexpected ways. While the conversation is mainly about what happens when the world’s best engineers go to the United States, the odds are growing that the ultimate showdown will occur, face-to-face, in faraway places—between footloose Yanks and local engineering heroes.

About the Author

G. Pascal Zachary is the author of Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century (Free Press, 1997). He teaches at Arizona State University.

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