An Economy of Talent: Harvard’s Bill Kerr On ‘Talent Immigrants’

We asked Harvard’s Bill Kerr for his take on the migrant caravan, Trump, and how talent immigrants fit into global innovation strategy.
Harvard Business School Professor William Kerr

Harvard Business School professor Bill Kerr says we are having the wrong debate about immigration. For example, Kerr thinks the way the Trump Administration fumbled the migrant caravan dustup “sucked the oxygen out of what could have been a meaningful conversation.”

In his new book, The Gift of Global Talent, Kerr makes an airtight case that America’s real problem is how to get more ‘talent immigrants’ into the country as they help drive the innovation economy. His findings suggest we would need to build a 40,000-foot wall to keep talent immigrants out as they fly here from places like China and India. But even if we could, why would we? 40% of our cancer researchers are immigrants, according to Kerr.

Are ‘talent immigrants’ more naturally gifted than home-grown Americans?

Immigrants as a whole do not have superpowers that Americans somehow lack. While the data show that immigrants win a significant share of the Nobel Prizes awarded to America, the average American and immigrant have equal productivity once we control for education and field of study.

Why are certain countries so good at developing STEM talent?

Some of the larger “immigrant-sending” countries like China, India, and Turkey, place a very high social value on science and engineering. The people we think of as just “highly capable” are rock stars in their home countries. If we want to equalize things, the border is not the place to start. We need to invest more in our STEM education. Right now, we can’t acquire enough of these skills without immigrants.

In The Gift of Global Talent, you talk about thought diversity. Is that part of the immigrant success story?

Yes, in fact, over 40 percent of the scientists in our leading cancer research centers are immigrants. A key driver to their ability to develop novel ideas and approaches is that they look at things in unique ways because of background and cultural differences.

Why aren’t immigrants finding opportunities in their home countries?

We are dealing with countries with billions of people, and those countries lack sufficient opportunities for realizing that talent’s potential. Let me remind, the same holds for talent coming up through the inner city of Boston.

What do we say to people in the U.S. who are worried about too much immigration?

If you take the guys at the coffee shop, they are probably mostly older, white males who may rightly feel the world is passing them by and immigrants become, in a sense, the scapegoat. Part of this is due to the way political leaders on both sides of the subject have demagogued the issue when there is broader support for talent immigrants. For instance, in the underlying poll for my research, we found that 57 percent of Trump voters were in favor of increased skilled immigration.

What are your thoughts on the migrant caravan?

The way Trump handled it diminished the luster of the United States and had a considerable effect on ‘talent immigrants’ making up their mind about the United States as a place that they want to live and work and bring families. It paints us as anti-immigrant or racist. The migrant caravan sucked the oxygen out of what could have been a meaningful conversation.

What should we do to fix our broken system of ‘talent immigration’?

I like having business and universities involved. Those two actors have a lot of incentives, and a lot of power, and a lot of insight to help make employment-based and student-based admissions. I would like also like to have a system that prioritizes potential immigrants, so the H1B lottery doesn’t give the artificial intelligence researcher the same chance as somebody doing code testing or outsourcing.

You talk about the importance of things like ‘talent clusters’ and ‘listening posts’?

Talent clusters are places like Silicon Valley and Austin, for technology. Listening posts are when a company places smaller facilities in those regions, so it has an ear, literally, in the conversation.

How should business think about getting closer to talent clusters?

Business leaders should be thinking about creating listening outposts or R&D labs, following Apple’s example, in seven or eight of these around the world. For smaller sized companies, open up one or two in critical locations. Look at Amazon’s recent headquarters decision move to New York and D.C. was arguably about getting closer to immigrant talent. An alternative, like Starwood Hotels, set up a mobile headquarters where you park yourselves for a month in an emerging market environment.

How should business be thinking about global workforce strategy?

A chief executive should be thinking about how to recruit immigrants coming to the United States and, anticipating the future, figure out how to better position your company for talent opportunities abroad. As Apple CEO Tim Cook proved, the challenge as less about immigration than global integration.

If we bring in more STEM immigrants, are we aggravating the male bias in hi-tech?

If you close your eyes and you think of global talent, and a male comes to mind, you need to update the image. As a whole, women account for more of the skilled based migration around the world.

What should business leaders do to drive a more intelligent immigration policy?

It’s all about having the right conversation. In May of this year, 56 CEOs sent a letter to the administration specifically about H1B visa and saying, here are three or four things that the administration is doing right now that need to change. I know of a $50 plus billion Fortune 50 company that got a request to prove that they could financially support an H1B visa applicant. Business leaders can be a significant bulwark against ignorant nationalism.

You relate the story of Verizon Bob, an engineer at the phone company who outsourced his job to China in secret. Should that worry us?

We learned many things from that story. Bob was considered the best programmer in the building as a result of his outsourcing. So while I think you have to fire Verizon Bob for lying, it begs the question: “why the heck are we spending time doing things someone over there can do faster and more efficiently?” I would hope that Verizon also saw they need to re-engineer how they perform these tasks and how they think about talent.

Read more: Think the Talent Shortage is Bad Now? Just Wait.