When economist Thomas L. Friedman published his international best seller “The World Is Flat” in 2005, he wasn’t making a counter scientific argument. No, Friedman’s work examined what we also sometimes term a borderless world – one that is intimately connected by technology, that eliminates the barriers between people. What’s more, Friedman’s view actively engages many of today’s most widespread business tools, from workflow software to offshoring and international streamlined supply chains.
Friedman’s work put a microscope to what it means to be a global society and specifically a global economy, but there are factors that his work couldn’t predict. In particular, Friedman’s work couldn’t foresee the recent changes in immigration policy that determine worker movement and that continue to transform the professional and technological landscape. Recent changes to immigration rules significantly favor those working in the tech sector who are developing the tools that make our world flat.
Remote First Isn’t Enough
In an unusual moment, one in which all types of businesses are attempting to operate remotely, it seems natural that all businesses should be developing in a remote first fashion. Focusing on remote operations would likely keep business costs down by reducing infrastructure and allow companies to take advantage of top talent across the globe. Workers wouldn’t need to immigrate and could just work from wherever they were in the world. As we’ve seen, though, most businesses aren’t boundary free. Instead, they rely on abundant local talent and cheap real estate to operate, elements that are no longer reliably available because of regional competition.
Of course, even a few years ago, it made sense that businesses didn’t prioritize remote work, especially at a global level. It was one thing for local team members to work from home with reliable infrastructure, but it was much harder to consistently connect with international workers, especially those in less developed parts of the world. And that’s without accounting for the added difficulty of working across time zones, something businesses generally prefer to avoid among high level workers. What norms of years past overlook, though, is the exponential development of digital tools.
All of these changes add up to our present circumstances: faced with more competition for top workers and expensive real estate, coupled with improved digital tools, companies could be remote first, but they’ve already invested too much into being place-bound. That means that companies need to get workers to wherever they’re operating. As such, they’re highly reliant on immigrant labor, leaving businesses subject to international policy changes and competing countries – not just competing businesses.
Industries Driving Immigration
What businesses are most reliant on immigrant labor to be successful? Historically, it’s been low paying jobs in food service and healthcare, and while that hasn’t necessarily changed, immigration policy has, making it harder for these workers to move between countries. The outlook is brighter in the tech sector, though, which now leads the way in driving professional immigration patterns.
One sector that’s fueling immigration is Fintech, the subsector of banking that merges technology and finance. It has made online payment systems mainstream, and it’s precisely the field’s relationship to banking that gives it so much power. Backed by enormous amounts of capital, these companies have the money to sponsor high paying tech jobs for skilled immigrants. Other companies in the tech sector have been similarly successful, though it’s been harder for tech startups to sponsor the types of jobs governments issue visas for.
Another key consideration in the competition for skilled technology workers is the fact that more industries than ever rely on at least a small contingent of these professionals. From healthcare to industrial concerns, every field has some degree of digital integration, a backroom of IT professionals or an app that needs tending. Though much of this work is outsourced to software firms and other support companies, demand for this class of workers is greater and more spread out across industries than anyone might have predicted.
Understanding The New Rules
Given that even tech companies don’t adhere to a remote first philosophy and are up against fierce competition for top workers, it’s critical that they understand the rules that shape our connected world and these vary widely by country. In the UK, for example, Brexit has left companies reeling, trying to understand their new, cut-off place in the world, but the news isn’t all bad. The UK’s new immigration system uses a points-based system prioritizes professional skills, along with a minimum salary, with skilled workers offered additional points through an employer-led system. All employers need to do is sponsor a work visa; workers can then identify sponsor companies to support their immigration application.
While the UK prioritizes immigration for skilled tech workers, in the United States, tightened visa restrictions are holding tech companies back, preventing them from competing for top industry talent. Whether looking for tech workers who understand industrial IoT for manufacturing or professionals who can provide cloud support for healthcare, the United States is likely to fall behind in the competition for talent.
Will Immigration Change Tech Hotspots?
Given changes in immigration policy and the need for businesses to recruit global workers, should we expect to see changes in where tech talent clusters? Experts believe so. Silicon Valley, for example – among other American technology hotspots – are likely to face a shortage of skilled workers needed to push innovation. In fact, US-based companies were already looking to move away from the area, shifting to cities like Phoenix that are more affordable. But relocating won’t be enough, especially while the US continues to block workers from majority-Muslim countries. The entire country is cut off from major talent streams.
At the same time that the US is actively blocking tech entrepreneurs from immigrating, London’s tech sector has been performing well attracting substantial VC funding. If UK-based companies can demonstrate that they have access to a disproportionate quantity of top talent, companies there could attract additional funding that would compound their advantages. With more money, they can create more sponsored positions, further securing their industry dominance.
We also shouldn’t discount Canada in the competition for top talent. Historically, Canada hasn’t attracted much VC capital and isn’t known for its tech dominance, but Toronto has seen the most growth in technology jobs in North America over the last five years. The country is also fast-tracking visas for tech workers and welcoming subsidiaries of international technology companies.
Competition for global tech workers raises another question: where are they all coming from? India ranks at the top of the list, but countries like Pakistan, Turkey, and Iran also supply many of these workers. The UK is also likely to see an influx of skilled workers from parts of Eastern Europe, workers who were permitted free movement into the UK prior to Brexit.
Is There A Balance Between Immigration And Remote Work?
Technology jobs may direct the flow of workers around the world right now, but is there a balance between promoting remote work and encouraging workers to immigrate to innovation hubs? The next few years could determine the answer to this question.
The most likely balance for tech companies trying to work within contemporary immigration policy is that they will sponsor jobs at the upper echelons, those who would, within the UK’s new immigration scheme, easily meet the points criteria. Meanwhile, workers lower down in tech operations are more likely to remain remote, especially as global infrastructure and remote collaboration tools improve. Technology jobs undoubtedly move people, but they won’t move everyone.
The earth may not be flat, but the world – the space in which we all work and connect, in which we do business – absolutely is. Thomas Friedman may not have been able to predict future political fluctuations, but even fifteen years ago, he had a clear grasp of how technology already had and would continue to bring us closer together.
From remote work to highly skilled technology careers, we’re all working more closely together than ever before, even if much of that interface takes place through screens.
Frank is a freelance journalist who has worked in various editorial capacities for over 10 years. He covers trends in technology as they relate to business.