U.S. is in Danger of Losing the Best and Brightest to Other Countries

"Thinking of moving to Canada? Sortable is hiring."

While this recruitment tactic may appeal to both native- and foreign-born U.S. workers, it highlights yet another challenge the United States is facing when it comes to immigration: The U.S. can no longer take for granted that it attracts the best and brightest people from around the world. In fact, the U.S. may be losing those individuals to other, more attractive and strategically-minded countries.

In 2014, a groundbreaking study used data from the professional networking site LinkedIn to analyze patterns in the international migration of highly-skilled workers with bachelor's degrees or higher. Focusing on migrant workers whose destination was the United States, researchers found that migration climbed modestly in the 1990s but dropped sharply after 2000. While 33% of migrants with bachelor's degrees sought work in the U.S. in 2000, only 17% did in 2012. The figures for foreign-born job seekers with master's and doctorate degrees indicated a similar decline, dropping from 27% to 12% and 29% to 18%, respectively.

Furthermore, while all fields showed a significant decrease in highly-skilled migrant labor, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields reflected the steeper decline, from 37% to 15%. The authors of the study note that short-term setbacks like the dot-com bubble of 1999-2001 and the financial crisis of 2008 are partly responsible for these downward trends in highly-skilled migration to the U.S., but they also assert that their data reflect long-term structural changes in employment-based, highly-skilled migration. "The United States continues to occupy a central place in the global migration system," they write. "However, its dominant position is no longer indisputable."

If highly-skilled migrant workers are no longer flocking to the U.S., then where are they seeking employment? The same study found that, while Europe and Canada also saw (milder) decreases in professional migration during the 2000s, Australia and Oceania, Africa, and Latin America all recorded proportional increases. Asian countries reflected the greatest increase in professional migration, from 10% in 2000 to 25% in 2012.

Based on their analysis, researchers conclude, "The observed decline of the United States as a professional migration destination may be a reflection of increased competition for highly skilled migrants from other countries, of declining demand for highly skilled migrants in the United States, of an increased worldwide supply of highly skilled migrants, or of inefficiencies created by current US migration laws. While the mechanism is most likely a multifactorial one, the overall conclusion seems to suggest the possibility of a fundamental change in the international migration patterns of professionals."

There is no question that immigrants have made enormous contributions to the U.S.'s status as a world leader in achievement and innovation. A report by the Partnership for a New American Economy states that, although foreign-born citizens have made up only 10.5% of the U.S. population on average since 1850, as of 2010, immigrant-founded companies accounted for 18% of the Fortune 500 list (90 companies in total). If one adds the additional 114 Fortune 500 companies founded by the children of immigrants, the share grows to over 40% of the list.
Moreover, a 2013 George Mason University analysis determined that, throughout the prize's history, 30.7% of the country's total number of Nobel laureates had immigrated to the U.S.

To maintain its competitive position in an ever-expanding global economy, the U.S. must not rest on its laurels, simply assuming that the world's best and brightest are lining up to work for American companies. Enticing and retaining a highly-skilled labor force will be key to economic prosperity and expansion, but as the Migration Policy Institute suggests, "This effort is not necessarily a zero-sum game between nations" because "the supply of potential highly skilled immigrants is also on the rise, and with effective immigration and integration policies the pool of potentially successful recruits can be expanded further." Viewed as an opportunity to be seized rather than a catastrophe to be averted, immigration can and will continue to be an economic driver of national success.