Immigration reform and America's innovation lead

Authoria CEO Tod Loofbourrow and MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson say America is at risk of squandering its talent leadership.

3 min read
Immigration reform is at the forefront of the news, in part because growth in today's economy is driven by innovation, and innovation is driven by a skilled work force.

We all become collectively wealthier every time a highly skilled immigrant joins our economy, and we're each made a little poorer when one is turned away. As other nations work aggressively to build their skilled work forces, America faces both a challenge and an opportunity to extend its innovation leadership throughout the 21st century.

While governmental reform of issues such as H-1B visa quotas is vital, America's corporations must also bear some responsibility for filling emerging talent gaps. Many companies have been successful at aggressively recruiting new employees. But in many large companies, the number of skilled workers leaving nearly matches the numbers joining the organization, creating a revolving-door atmosphere.

In today's knowledge-based economy, the power of creative collaboration between knowledge workers is the source of most invention and innovation.

Simply adding skilled workers from abroad won't by itself solve this issue. American companies have a responsibility to create an environment to support and optimize the value of their talent. When teams of highly skilled workers are given structure, opportunities and a work environment that promotes collaboration, they drive innovation, which fuels growth and the creation of wealth to fuel more opportunities.

This means that teaming the best highly skilled workers from abroad with the best ones already inside our companies needs to be treated as a strategic business initiative if American companies are going to lead.

Millions of baby boomers start to retire in 2008. With this shrinking labor pool, combined with high turnover--the 2005 Spherion Emerging Workforce Study points to 40 percent of U.S. workers intending to find a new job in the next 12 months--there is a potential crisis in supply and demand of human capital. America's talent leadership is not set in stone but is driven by constant replenishment of our pool of skills, training, education and talent.

Companies have to be as inventive about recruiting and developing their skilled talent as they strive to be about product innovation. A survey of senior human resources executives in 200 large companies showed that their top priority is retaining and developing talent, followed closely by the desire to align employee goals with corporate strategic plans. Yet often, talented people residing inside our organizations today are underutilized, thanks to approaches to managing talent that put people in departmental or functional silos or hold them back in their current positions.

In today's knowledge-based economy, the power of creative collaboration between knowledge workers is the source of most invention and innovation. Witness the creative innovation that gave birth to Apple Computer's iPod and displaced decades of Sony's leadership in the music player market.

Progressive immigration policy for highly skilled workers makes it possible for that creative collaboration to happen in Boston; San Jose, Calif.; and Peoria, Ill., as easily as in Bangalore, India; Shanghai, China; and Seoul, South Korea. When it comes to combining the right talented, creative, highly skilled people, the formula for innovation is not 1 + 1 = 2, but 1 + 1 = 10.

As has been proven time and again, in America more often than anywhere else, the greatest wealth creation and the greatest advances for humanity usually come from a small team of highly inventive people.

Unless government and corporate leaders address both halves of the talent-gap quandary--not just getting access to skilled workers, but also knowing how to better leverage the human capital they already have--America risks squandering its global leadership in innovation and invention. While fueling the engine that brings in more skilled talent to work and contribute in the U.S. is critical, companies must also aggressively pursue a strategy to retain those workers, improve productivity, foster collaboration and innovation, and reduce turnover.

Developing the skilled workers we have is the missing link to close our talent gap and fuel the innovation engine.