International Business | Diversity and Migration | Human Resources | Asia-Pacific

The War for Global Talent

Fast Facts:

  • In recent decades, international human resources have become more mobile, setting off a global “war for talent” among companies and nations for the people they need in order to innovate and compete.
  • With many companies reporting a shortage of qualified candidates trained in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, overseas Chinese and Indians with degrees in these fields are in high demand, both abroad and at home.

From his first day in office, US president Donald Trump has worked to make it more difficult for foreign workers and entrepreneurs to obtain visas to work in or immigrate to the United States. This has set off alarm bells in the American business community, which is highly dependent on a pool of international talent to fill positions and maintain competitiveness. Research by SFU’s Rosalie Tung, the Ming and Stella Wong Professor of International Business at the Beedie School of Business, shows why this so-called “America first” policy is anything but. 

Over the past three decades, human resources, the key to economic success for companies and nations, have become untethered from the countries where they were born, raised, or educated. Business and high-tech talent has become more mobile than ever before, for several reasons. Globalization has meant that countries around the world are more connected and interdependent than at any previous time in history. Reductions in barriers to the movement of people and the liberalization of citizenship regulations have made it easier for people to relocate from one country to another. And people with in-demand qualifications and skills are increasingly willing to change jobs across international boundaries in search of more intrinsically satisfying careers. With many companies reporting a shortage of qualified candidates in positions that require degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, firms and nations find themselves competing in a global “war for talent” to attract the human resources they need. 

Tung points out that talent mobility has shifted from one-way to multi-directional. In the past the term “brain drain” was used to describe the emigration of highly trained or qualified people from a particular country, with the country they move to benefiting from “brain gain.” But today, “brain circulation” better describes the international movement of human resources; a person may grow up in country X, move to country Y for advanced education, and then choose either to remain in Y, move back to X, or go to a third country to start a company or work. This means that, in Tung’s words, “more and more, nations have to compete with organizations in other countries for the same talent pool.” 

Two of the greatest sources of global talent, especially in high-tech fields, are China and India. Chinese and Indian graduate students are heavily represented in US and Canadian graduate degree programs in science and engineering, and have played key roles in many IT startups in Silicon Valley. Many retain a strong affinity to their home countries, whose economic might is growing, and are strongly attracted to opportunities back in China and India to start new ventures or take well-paying jobs in industry. Indeed, the governments of both countries are making efforts to attract overseas Chinese and Indians to return to contribute to economic development at home.

As Tung states, “In a knowledge-based economy, firms and nations are aware that in order to gain and/or maintain their international competitiveness, they need to seek, attract, recruit, and retain human talent wherever it can be found.” For the Trump administration or the government of any country to make it harder for companies to secure this human talent only makes it more difficult for its companies to compete and invites economic decline.