September 21, 2015

Tech (and others) talent vs immigration: the ultimate US fight

I am not a big boxing fan. In fact I have only watched one fight in my life (Pacquiao vs Mayweather a few months ago, of course) so I do not understand much about it. However, over the last months I have learnt a lot about fighting and related tactics. So far I have lost, but there are a couple of rounds still left.

A lot - see this article for illustration - has been written about the shortage of talent being a relevant challenge for the tech industry these days in the US. There is a real need to fill thousands of roles and no domestic talent is often available. This obviously harms growth and development, which is critical for startups. In this context, tech companies face a very complex legal environment when trying to fill that gap with qualified foreign workers. Obviously, I am sure that other industries feel similar pain and would also benefit from tapping foreign talent in an easier way.

Shortly after I graduated from b-school in New York in 2008, the Trouble Asset Relief Program (TARP) was passed. Billions of dollars were funneled to troubled US banks (main MBA hirers at the time) which, in practice, were prohibited to hire foreign workers without tapping the American workers' pool first. As much as this hurt back then, I totally understand today that a government wants to be protective of its own citizens and put its domestic labor force to work after pouring so much money in. 

But today the situation is completely different in America. Unemployment in the US is at around 5% (which, once frictional unemployment is subtracted, results in almost "full employment") and lots of companies are unable to find what they need within the domestic labor workforce. A massive legal spider web makes it super hard to hire foreign workers: the universe and variety of visas is crazy, the calendar is crazy (e.g. why an H-1B visa that you get in April is not activated until October?), costs are crazy, etc...In short, regulation acts as a huge deterrent.

It is clear that living in a country that is not your own and where you live and work in a foreign language is tough and requires anyone in such situation to compete with local talent. At the same time, it is obvious that companies themselves want to hire the best and, if that means hiring non-national talent, it should happen at their own risk. Such behavior should not be prevented just because of administrative burdens, in particular at times when there is almost full employment, as I pointed out before.

I am a JD, have an MBA from a top US school, have worked for reputed employers, have lived in the country for almost 5 years during which I have significantly contributed to the US economy on a daily basis, have paid taxes deriving from pretty high salaries, have complied with my social security obligations and kept a clean criminal record. Today, that is not enough to get a work visa. I went one step farther and secured a signed offer with a thriving New York-based startup who was kind enough - I often pinched myself in disbelief for their amazing loyalty and care - to go through the pain of sponsoring me a visa. I quit my job and was ready to join. However, 3 months of paperwork and administrative fighting later, my visa was denied (it is in the appeal phase now) and I left (who knows if it will just be temporary) the country.

There is a lot of discussion these days around immigration in the US thanks in particular to pretty unfortunate comments by characters such as Donald Trump. It is a fact that there is a lot of illegal immigration in the US but it is not less true, in my view, that it would be hard for the economy to work as it does without having such illegal workforce contributing its long hours and effort as it does. But that is a different debate.

It's a bit of a paradox that illegal immigrants are in practice allowed to work in the country and that when you try to play by the book - having, supposedly, all the qualifications and a job offer in place - you face the risk of being kicked out. As I tell my friends, these are the rules of the game and you have to accept them from the outset and regardless of the final outcome. When you go into the ring you are going to be hit, whether you win the fight or not.

I'd advocate for a framework where more flexibility is given for hiring qualified foreign talent. It is bad for US companies trying to grow and thrive; it is bad for foreign companies that want to settle and generate wealth in the US but are not allowed in many cases to hire who they need; it is bad for the international candidates, many of which are US educated and committed to making an impact in the country; and, ultimately, it is bad for the US themselves, in terms of foregone taxes and significant contributions fueling the economy (salaries in tech are traditionally high), among others.

My "round 12" is about to start, let's see what happens - Ding!

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