Talent is to a knowledge-based economy what oil and steel were to an industrial-based one—its most important asset. And while agglomeration was important in the past too, it pales in comparison to the type of economic concentration we see playing out right now in major cities across the globe—talent wants to be around other talent. In fact it needs to be.
For decades, the United States has been the world’s biggest beneficiary of global talent flows by a long shot. University professors, entrepreneurs, inventors, Nobel Laureates, and other highly-skilled individuals have come to the United States in droves, not only because America is itself a nation of immigrants, but because it is a place where these people are able to be the most productive—in large part, by working with other talented individuals (from the U.S. and elsewhere). A recent study from Citi and Oxford University demonstrates that these inflows of human capital increase output in America and other advanced economies in substantial ways.
But the United States risks squandering its long-held gift of global talent, due to changing economic conditions abroad and a series of missteps at home. That’s the message of an excellent new book from Bill Kerr of the Harvard Business School: The Gift of Global Talent: How Migration Shapes Business, Economy & Society. As Kerr states at the outset:
I happily admit to being hopelessly confused on many hot button issues. But not on global talent. America’s surge to preeminence over the past 250 years is due to the promise of the “American dream” and the talent it has welcomed to its shores… [but] America has neglected global talent for more than a decade, starting well before the 2016 election… Ceding U.S. talent leadership would hurt Middle America as much as it would harm Manhattan or Silicon Valley.
For those of you who don’t know, Kerr is one of the most important empirical economists on issues around entrepreneurship, innovation, and immigration. He has made immense contributions to the field in synthesizing literature in a systematic way, and establishing key facts in disjointed areas of work. If I have questions about what the literature in these areas has to say on a particular issue, Kerr’s work is one of the first places I turn.
The book follows four propositions: that (i) talent is the world’s most precious resource, (ii) talent as a resource is highly mobile, (iii) talent is shaped to a large degree by the environment that surrounds it, and (iv) global talent flows are important to every country, business, and individual (whether they are aware of it or not).
The first half of the book lays out the basic facts surrounding global talent flows and their importance to innovation and the economy, as well as a broader discussion about the practicalities of how immigration systems work (with a heavy focus on the United States). The second half of the book focuses on the implications of global talent flows and the issues managers will need to consider in a highly globalized, knowledge-intensive world.
I recommend this book to just about anybody who’s interested in business, innovation, technology, and their impact on the economy, workforce, and society. It’s a breezy read that easily conveys what you need to take away from it. I especially offer this to people outside of the research/academic community who may not know where to look for the basic facts or a coherent framework for understanding these issues deeply and accessibly.
Kerr provides an invaluable service to our collective knowledge-base by doing what so many academics before him have failed to do—bring the wealth of understanding on a critical and timely issue down from the Ivory Tower and deliver it to the masses in a way that can easily be grasped. This is not something easily done and Kerr nails it.