Sunday, April 13, 2008

Cleveburgh Human Capital

In today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Harold Miller takes a closer look at the region's migration woes. As expected, out-migration isn't the problem. The issue is attracting more people, including international migrants:

In the past Pittsburgh ranked dead last in the rate of international immigration, but that may be starting to change. While still very low, in the past few years the rate has increased significantly and has moved ahead of places such as Cincinnati, Cleveland and St. Louis. We also have one of the highest rates of growth in our foreign-born population among major regions. That's because we're starting with such a small base (we have the smallest proportion of foreign-born people among the top 40 regions) that even our low rate of immigration increases our foreign-born population significantly.

Fair to say that the demographic worm is turning, but there is plenty of work yet to be done. On that front, Bill Toland takes a cue from the Cleveburgh Diaspora blog and tackles the annual American talent squeeze:

"We need more qualified people in this country than we have," said Jim Marczak, chief executive of Sycor Americas and its Montreal sister company. Sycor, an IT consulting firm, applied for 40 of the visas, meaning they've agreed to employment contracts with 40 foreign workers, most of them from India and Eastern Europe.

If Sycor should happen to win some of the visas for which it has petitioned, those temporary workers won't be able to work here until October, the beginning of the federal fiscal year. (In Canada, they'd clear immigration in eight weeks.) Those who don't win a visa have been promised back-up offers in Sycor's German and Canadian operations, even though, Mr. Marczak said, "I would have preferred to focus here in Pittsburgh" rather than abroad.

Labor economics aside, I'm intrigued with how Sycor is coping with the Gordian Knot of American immigration law. I'm reminded of Vivek Wadhwa's suggestion to look to India for innovation. I'm familiar enough with the history US border control to understand that the policy will never stabilize and will continue to be subject to political whim. The more durable solution is the kind of ad hoc approach Sycor is employing, taking advantage of more favorable immigration terms wherever they may be. But I would bet that the opportunity costs are a bit more in Canada or Germany than it is in the United States.

If we couldn't bank on H-1B reform, then how might we address the short term labor shortage? I'm still all for Rust Belt "High-Skill Immigration Zones" but I wouldn't bet my business on it happening.

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