Page last updated at 10:27 GMT, Thursday, 22 January 2009

Europe in fight for top talent

By William Horsley
Writer on European affairs

Students at John Moores University, Liverpool, UK (file pic)
Global competition for top talent is fierce despite the economic downturn

Imagine a future time when Europe is no longer seen as a rich continent, or in the top rank of leaders in technology.

It is a time when Africa is producing more students with advanced degrees than Europe. The population of Europe is shrinking fast because of ageing and a brain drain to the east.

In this picture roles have been reversed: China has become a big destination for Europe's top brains and talents, who are lured there by high salaries. And China is a world leader in cutting-edge science and technology.

Sheer fantasy? No. These are elements of a possible scenario put forward in Brussels on Wednesday by experts and leading public figures from Europe and North America in the Transatlantic Council on Migration, which calls itself an "idea factory" for western governments.

One of their key pieces of advice is that Europe should take part more actively in a "global war for talent" - a hunt for people with special skills who will play a key part in deciding which countries stay competitive and prosper.

The concept seems to run against the grain of popular attitudes in hard times like these. As Europe and America plunge into what looks like a deep and prolonged recession, European governments are taking steps to cut immigration and to return more illegal immigrants to their countries of origin.

But the Transatlantic Council says European countries should now make extra efforts to attract people from all around the world who have soft skills (like health care), specific skills (like IT) or "superskills".

The council's members include Trevor Phillips, chairman of the UK Commission on Equality and Human Rights, and Rita Suessmuth, a former president of the German parliament.

Star quality

In fact European countries are already engaged in cut-throat competition for top talent from places far away. The super-skilled, above all, can generate success in the form of extraordinary wealth.

Kaka is staying with AC Milan despite an eye-watering offer

Take the case of the ultra-talented Brazilian footballer Kaka: he made history this week by turning down an offer by an English club, Manchester City, to move there from AC Milan for a world-beating transfer fee reportedly exceeding 100m (109m euros; $140m), with a dizzying salary to match.

In turning it down Kaka proved that for the super-skilled Europe can still be a seller's market, despite the economic gloom. Kaka says he wants to stay in his adopted country, Italy, because he likes it there.

A fierce contest for talent is also under way to win a share of the roughly three million university-age students from around the world now enrolled in colleges and universities. That number is expected to more than double by 2025. Currently the US leads this race, with Britain and Australia in hot pursuit.

Some western countries with declining native populations have come to view these students, most of whom are from China or other parts of Asia, as a valuable pool of "tried and tested" immigrants with few problems of social adjustment.

The strategy has worked for Canada and Australia. Immigrants account for more than one-third of all their doctors, engineers and computer specialists.

Europe, too, is in the chase for this source of skills. The prestigious Sciences-Po school in Paris (the Institute for Political Science) has many courses in English for foreign students. Dutch universities offer hundreds of English-only courses to overcome the language barrier.

East European influx

Britain has sometimes looked like a winner in the contest to attract top talent and wealthy individuals, from Russian oligarchs and African footballers to superstars including Madonna.

Targeting skilled migrants - rival to US Green Card
Would supplement visa regimes in most EU states
Three-year work and residency permit, renewable
Free movement within EU for holder and family
Long-term resident status may be granted after five years
Scheme accepted by European Parliament in Nov 2008 - now awaiting final approval by EU leaders

And five years ago UK immigration numbers soared as a result of a huge exercise in buying in skills from abroad.

Britain was one of just three EU member states which threw their doors open to workers from Poland and other East European states as soon as they joined the European Union. A mass influx of skilled builders and plumbers took up that call, and filled a glaring gap in the labour market.

Now, though, many of those Polish "workers of opportunity" have no more work in the UK and are going home. To critics, that episode only showed up Britain's chronic failure to foster those essential skills among its own population.

Germany provided an example of how the war for talent can misfire if it is poorly managed. Captains of industry there called for fast-track, selective immigration rules when they found that the country's hi-tech development was being held back by a lack of German workers with computer skills.

A German government scheme offered time-limited visas to IT specialists from India, but it flopped because few IT workers in Mumbai saw the offer as welcoming or providing long-term career prospects.

This year Germany, like most EU states, is to commit itself to a unified Europe-wide "blue card" system of temporary visas for would-be immigrants, as a way of attracting the best and brightest from outside Europe.

Britain now has its own "points" system for attracting workers with skills that match specific economic needs.

Brain drain fears

Immigration is a highly emotive subject and a source of many international tensions.

The European Commission acknowledges one of these: the need for "ethical" policies to protect developing countries from "negative brain drain effects" by limiting recruitment from places where it is doing harm.

The Transatlantic Council on Migration points to other uncertainties that could derail efforts by European states to manage immigration to suit their own needs:

  • The "push" factor. A population explosion in the Middle East and North Africa means that in 2030 the region is forecast to have 104 million people aged in their 20s. Many of them are likely to try to enter Europe, with or without permission.
  • Popular opposition. Anti-immigration movements appear to be on the rise in many parts of Europe. Even "managed" migration carries risks to race relations and social harmony.

Yet these experts say the picture could change in unexpected ways over the next 20 years, as Europe and the US lose their dominant place in the world economy and education levels rise dramatically in China, India and parts of Africa.

Already China is sucking in talent from the West to its centres of industry and science. The recession will bite hard in the West, and the East will rise, according to projections.

So in time the roles of continents in the global war for talent will change - perhaps dramatically.

And this week the world's attention is focused on one man who embodies the idea that, in a welcoming environment, special talent can rise high in one generation through the new opportunities created by migration. His name: Barack Obama.

The Transatlantic Council on Migration is an initiative of the Migration Policy Institute in the US. Its partners in Europe are the Bertelsmann Foundation and the European Policy Centre.

Bar chart showing destinations of international students

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