Monday, October 27, 2008

Musing: The Global Recession and International Migration of Skilled People

People move from one country to another because they perceive the opportunities in the receiving country to be better than those in the country of departure. I don't mean just the economic opportunities, although they are certainly important. But there are social and other opportunities that matter. Certainly, many highly educated people are motivated to utilize their knowledge and skills to help people, especially people of the society from which they come. The opportunities to enjoy close relationships with friends and families also count, and the development of low cost communications networks (especially the Internet) has encouraged emigration by reducing the cost and difficulty of communicating with family at a distance.

I have found it useful sometimes to think of the flow of international migrants in terms of demand pull and supply push. I have posted often in this blog on the importance of creating conditions in the United States that attract people with technological skills and knowledge and with entrepreneurial and innovation skills to maintain the economic growth of the nation; that is I have posted on the need to keep the demand pull factors high here for immigration of appropriate scientific and technological personnel.

I have suggested that often developing nations push their scientifically and technologically trained people to emigrate because they allow conditions to exist that are unattractive to those people -- low salaries, poor working conditions, and often lack of opportunity to utilize their education productively. Surprisingly, developing nations often expend large amounts of resources to train excessive numbers of professionals, at least to train more people than the nation will put to productive work. Not surprisingly, the well trained, underemployed people often leave.

International migration of scientific and technological professionals has both benefits and costs to the home country. The costs may seem obvious, but they are only real if the country is willing and able to utilize the talents of the migrant. I recall a time when Bolivia had a union of unemployed doctors with something like 130 members; it was not surprising that many of its doctors emigrated to the United States. Bolivia was not using their expensive training. On the other hand, the remittances from the expatriate professionals can be quite useful.

I would also note that Israel, recognizing that its scientific and technological community is not capable of maintaining world-class standards in isolation, strongly encourages its scientific and technological professionals to travel and work abroad on a regular basis. The lessons they learn abroad are brought home on their return, keeping the country at the frontier of global science and technology.

The Crisis and its Likely Impact

I think that we are in the early stages of a multiyear global recession, and that the recession will tend to both increase supply push and decrease demand pull for international migration of S&T professionals. Financial downturn in developing nations will probably result in reductions of their attractiveness for S&T professionals: fewer S&T jobs, lower pay, fewer exciting professional opportunities.

I would suppose that the same factors would apply in developed nations, but the situation may be not be so simple. Often, I think, the United States seeks to attract S&T professionals from developing nations to work at lower salaries in fairly routine professional roles. It may recruit foreign medical graduates to provide family medicine in rural areas or foreign S&T graduates to fill teaching positions in community colleges or even at the secondary school level. The cuts in funding for these kinds of jobs may be less than for the more prestigious jobs in high technology industry or research intensive universities.

Of course, the market is segmented, and I assume that the highest prestige organizations will still seek to attract the most gifted scientists, engineers, and other technological professionals from wherever they are found, and will be successful in doing so from developing countries.

The economic crisis may provide opportunities for policy makers in developed and in developing countries to build S&T capabilities for the future. If I am right, generally there will be fewer attractive opportunities for S&T personnel globally. A company, state, province or country that moves counter to the general trend may be able to accumulate a strong S&T capacity during this period and put it to work for the future. Once a community of such people is working productively and producing useful results, its members should be much less likely to leave for future greener pastures.

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