Poaching U.S. Talent

The war for talent has gone international, forcing U.S. organizations to fight to hold onto their most-skilled workers.
By: | February 7, 2018 • 5 min read

For years, overseas employers have been snapping up U.S. talent, especially those workers with science, engineering, math and science training. What has changed recently is there are now new players for American talent in countries such as China, Japan and Brazil.

Indeed, companies in the construction and energy sectors in China are recruiting U.S. civil engineers who can also serve as project managers, says Paul Feeney, managing director at Sanford Rose Associates – Wayne, a global recruiting firm in Ramsey, N.J., who has recruited professionals for companies in more than 30 countries.

Likewise, he adds, China and Saudi Arabia are purchasing massive amounts of land throughout Africa for commercial farms and may soon tap skilled Americans to operate them.

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“The Saudis realize that oil won’t be there forever but there will be a need for food,” he says.  “Africa is the new continent where there’s going to be a lot of opportunities over the next 50 years.”

Even Japan wants more skilled immigrants: everyone from engineers and entrepreneurs to researchers and managers and professionals, according to a recent Bloomberg article titled Japan Wants Immigrants. The Feeling Isn’t Mutual. So much so that the Japanese government implemented a points-based immigration system similar to Canada’s, which assigns points for advanced degrees, language skills and work experience. The higher the score, the higher the chance of foreigners earning permanent residency—the equivalent of a U.S. green card.

Other desired U.S. professionals include general managers for production facilities and finance managers as directors of operating units, Feeney says. Since Brazil, Chile and Colombia are “on the upswing” and now more attractive places to work, he says, employers in those countries have also placed U.S. workers on their radar screens.

Although the U.S. is a ripe target for talent, American employers are also feeling the pinch when it comes to finding talent. Consider economic projections by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that cite a need for approximately one million more STEM professionals above what the U.S. will produce at the current rate over the next decade.

Surprisingly, the U.S. does not rank No. 1 globally when it comes to three talent categories: the knowledge necessary to discover, understand and build new technologies; the overall context that enables the development of digital technologies; and the level of country preparedness to exploit digital transformation. That’s according to the IMD World Competitiveness Center, which conducts research on world competitiveness and offers benchmarking services for companies and countries.

Based on the 2017 IMD’s World Digital Competitiveness Ranking, Singapore is rated No. 1 in the first category—knowledge—followed by Sweden and Canada. The U.S. ranks in fifth place. Both Singapore and Norway occupy the first and second spots, respectively, in technology, while the U.S. ranked No. 6. In the third category—future readiness—Denmark grabs the top spot, followed by the U.S. and the Netherlands.

Still, American employees fit well into many workplaces such as those in New Zealand because their qualifications align well with professions in key growth areas, such as the technology, engineering and medical sectors, says Greg Forsythe, national manager of marketing at Immigration New Zealand, the agency within the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment that is responsible for issuing travel visas and managing immigration to New Zealand.

He says that, due to a series of earthquakes in 2011, the country needs 56,000 workers in engineering and construction to complete NZ$125 billion of infrastructure projects over the next decade, including a 323,000 square-foot indoor sports facility; a 17-mile, four-lane highway; and an expansion of the city’s rail system.

However, salary expectations are sometimes problematic. For example, since local tech firms struggle to match compensation packages offered by IT companies in Silicon Valley, they focus on the country’s balanced, safe and stress-free lifestyle, Forsythe says.

Other times, it’s the scale of construction projects that can cause talent-sourcing issues, says Phil Ponder, director at Catalyst Recruitment in Auckland, New Zealand.

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“New Zealand is quite a small place,” he says, adding that roughly 80 of the 100 people annually recruited by his firm are foreigners. “The skill level [of Americans] is not the problem, but if they’re used to major projects, New Zealand may not be quite the right place.”

Looking ahead, stateside HR professionals in this country need not worry, Forsythe says. Since his country’s economy ranks between that of Louisiana and Alabama, its employment needs are “unlikely to register a significant impact on the U.S. labor market.”

Instead, HR professionals should focus on losing talent to domestic competitors, says Feeney.

Employers with a global or national footprint can offer high potentials opportunities to transfer abroad or to different states in upward or lateral positions, he says. Temporary job transfers may also be attractive and help keep foreign recruiters at bay, while another option is to participate in employee-exchange programs with similar, noncompeting foreign companies.

However, the best strategy is to develop a flexible workplace culture, career-advancement opportunities, and a competitive compensation and benefits package. Combine that with the nation’s 4.1-percent unemployment rate, Feeney says, and HR won’t have to worry about employees leaving to go work for a foreign company “unless [the workers] have the aspiration to do so.”

Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at [email protected]