In 1979, though it was the height of the Cold War, a family of Soviet refugees immigrated to America. Their 6-year-old son, Sergey Brin, grew up to create billions in wealth and tens of thousands of jobs in the United States, co-founding Google, one of the technological cornerstones of the modern economy.
In 1992, South African-born Elon Musk, then 21, began his schooling at the University of Pennsylvania. He went on to build PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla, itself named for Nikola Tesla, a Serbian inventor who emigrated to the U.S. in 1884.
American technological dominance has been built throughout the past century by Americans who were born in every country in the world. Without access to global brainpower and talent, the U.S. would not be the country it is today.
Over the last 40 years, American factories have employed fewer and fewer people as plants have been shipped to Asia and other developing markets. The U.S. should ask whether the same could happen to technology jobs.
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The ambition, talent and hard work of innovators has helped the U.S. become the dominant economy of the 21st century. And the world knows it.
Living in Canada, I can say that north of the U.S. border, Canadians with ambition and chops feel the pull of New York, Silicon Valley or Hollywood as places where the world-class can truly make it. In fact, for years Canada has been actively engaged in fighting the country’s brain drain as too many of Canada’s best and brightest moved south for bigger opportunities.
But things are different now. America has turned inward and its politicians see outsiders as liabilities instead of assets.
In their eyes, immigrants are world destroyers rather than world builders. The thesis appears to be that 321 million American minds can out-invent and out-work the 7 billion people outside of its borders, that American exceptionalism can beat 22-to-1 odds.
But outside of the U.S., many countries are betting that this hypothesis is dead wrong. Countries such as Canada, France and Japan are openly promoting foreign inclusiveness as a competitive advantage in the global economy.
In the aftermath of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris accord, Emmanuel Macron, France’s new, globalist leader proclaimed:
“To all scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, responsible citizens who were disappointed by the decision of the president of the United States, I want to say that they will find in France a second homeland. I call on them, come and work here with us to work together on concrete solutions for our climate, our environment. I can assure you France will not give up the fight.”
France is holding up its national values of liberty, equality and fraternity as incentives for the world’s best talent to relocate. Similarly, Canada in June announced the Global Skills Strategy, a bold new initiative aimed at attracting technology talent.
Under this program, high growth companies can easily move teams – or their entire company – to Canada, and a complex process that used to take months can now be done in weeks.
Over the last 40 years North American and European manufacturers have seen their factories employ fewer and fewer people as plants have been shipped to Asia and other developing markets. It’s time that U.S. policymakers consider whether the same thing could happen to technology jobs.
If it does, the exodus of technology companies could happen at an even more dramatic rate because technology companies are not connected to geography the same way factories and coal mines are.
Industrial economies are dependent on logistical and resource factors such as proximity to water or energy sources. If you’re going to build cars, it helps that you’re close to the Great Lakes, like Detroit.
But if you’re building the next big software company you can set up in Austin, Dublin – or Moncton, New Brunswick, and still connect to world markets. Megabits are more movable than atoms, and people can do it anywhere with an internet connection.
In this way, the technology world is much more fluid and mobile than any of the industries that came before it.
This portability is one reason the tech sector is so adept at responding to challenges. If a technology company is going to compete globally it needs access to the world’s best talent, and if that talent is kept out of a particular geography then companies will move out of those restricted zones and go where the talent is.
These dynamics threaten Silicon Valley’s dominance as the global leader in technology. There are other shining cities on the hill.
With countries such as Canada and France opening their doors while the U.S. builds walls, it’s only a matter of time before the innovators are on the other side of the border.