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Searching for an olive branch in the global war for talent

18 Feb 2013

The University of Sydney Business School

By William Harvey

National governments need to convince their electorate that global talent is important for economic development during booms and busts, argues Dr Will Harvey.

Last year, thousands of athletes from hundreds of countries competed in the London Olympics. The International Olympic Committee had no difficulty attracting the world's leading sporting talent because the Olympics are considered as the pinnacle event for most sporting disciplines.

The global war for talent, the competition for skilled migrants, holds important parallels to the Olympics and Paralympics in that a breadth and depth of supply of talent exists across the world. But there are also stark differences because this war is not a one-off event and therefore countries and companies continue to face significant competition with attracting and retaining the best global workers.

The most talented arguably have greater choice than ever in deciding where to work. But many have to seek work outside of their home country because of the unevenness of global economic growth. And while countries such as Taiwan are passing laws to make it easier to attract top workers from across the world, the Portuguese government is encouraging the country's young graduates to seek opportunities elsewhere.

Multinational corporations are realising that they cannot afford to limit their hiring to local and national labour markets when they can hire from a larger and more diverse global labour market. After all, why would US firms restrict their talent search to the US border when China produces more PhD graduates? Or why would British firms look only to the UK and the European Union when India has more business graduates than the whole of Europe?

The flight of global talent exists across multiple sectors, from science to banking and from extractives to sport. The British footballer David Beckham, for example, has played for Manchester United (in the UK), Real Madrid (in Spain), LA Galaxy (in the US) and AC Milan (in Italy).

It is not only companies, in this case football clubs, which benefit from attracting foreign talent, but also individuals, in this instance Beckham, who benefit from the increasing international exposure to foreign markets which enables career and personal brand development.

Countries will lose the war for global talent unless they signal a shift in policy. National governments need to convince their electorate that global talent is important for economic development during booms and busts. The role of the national government is also significant because global talent is becoming more footloose, selective and demanding about which countries and opportunities will best suit their needs.

Companies also face growing challenges of attracting global talent because workers are moving jobs more frequently during their careers. Higher salaries or more generous relocation packages are important to a certain extent, but they are not the primary reason why migrants move or stay.

People move abroad for professional purposes as well as to seek a change in lifestyle, an amenable place to raise their children, an adventure or an opportunity to live in another country. Motivations change over time with career opportunities being more important in the earlier stages of a migrant's life, and family and lifestyle considerations being more important at the later stages.

Therefore, countries and companies need to balance these drivers and tailor them to the right people at the right time.

Will Harvey is a lecturer in the University of Sydney Business School's Discipline of Work and Organisational Studies.




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