During the boom years, countries in the hunt for talent focused on ways to make it easier for foreign scientists, doctors, and IT specialists to enter and stay. The rationale: we can't afford to lose the next Nobel Prize winner or Google founder to someplace else.
In these lean times, countries still want the talent — key to their long-term competitiveness — but a handful want more assurance they're getting the cream of the cream, as well as skills they don't have already.
Singapore, which avidly pursued talent over the last decade and where one-third of the population is foreign, pulled back in 2010 even as its economy grew rapidly and birth rates remained stubbornly low.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has had a tight line to walk. He still publicly states that immigration is critical to Singapore's future, but he has acknowledged that Singaporeans are worried about competing with foreign workers and foreigners' willingness to integrate.
In a speech in August, he said, "We are very careful whom we accept" and "We have accepted a larger inflow of foreign workers and we have taken in more new citizens and PRs [permanent residents]...But now I think we should consolidate, slow down the pace."
That pace has already slowed. Official data reveal that the number of permanent residents grew by 1.5 percent in 2010, compared to at least 6 percent growth per year between 2005 and 2009. Those who enter as low-skilled foreign workers are not eligible for permanent residency.
According to media reports, the Singaporean government recently made it harder for professionals to qualify for PR status or citizenship by increasing the minimum income and residential requirements. Reports also noted that whereas professionals had their PR status renewed for 10 years at a time prior to the recession and for five years prior to 2010, some were receiving one-year renewals.
Just two years ago, the United Kingdom rolled out a points-based system (PBS) for the highly skilled, aimed at bringing the more than 80 work and study routes into a system of five tiers, each with transparent and objective criteria. The Conservative government elected in May quickly decided that PBS, along with the other routes into the country, needed revamping to reduce net immigration to the "tens of thousands" rather than the "hundreds of thousands" — one of its campaign promises.
In her November 5 speech on immigration, Home Secretary Theresa May confirmed there would be partial caps on Tiers 1 and 2 of the PBS (from April 2011, only 1,000 visas for the "exceptionally talented" under Tier 1, and 21,700 visas under Tier 2 will be available). She made the policy intention very clear: "But alongside the overall limit, we need to ensure that only the brightest and best can come. So we need to tighten the rules for who is eligible to apply in the first place."
The cap on workers in Tier 2, which requires a confirmed job offer in a sector experiencing labor shortages, has proved more controversial. Following pressure from the business community, the government changed its plans for limiting non-European Union (EU) skilled workers, securing a deal in late November that does include a cap but exempts intracompany transferees making more than 40,000 pounds (US$62,000) annually — a large portion of non-EU workers. However, as net immigration remains stubbornly high, on track for over 200,000 this year, more policy changes are expected.
In announcing changes to its points system in November, Australia showed it is more concerned with the "best and brightest," meaning engineers over hair stylists, than with reducing numbers, its objective in 2009 when it cut admission numbers for skilled migrants. Australia also wanted to make sure foreign students with poor English skills could not qualify so easily.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen explained, "For too long we've had a situation where Harvard graduates in, say, environmental science with extensive work experience would not qualify for skilled migration to Australia."
The changes, set to go into effect in July 2011, give more points for English proficiency, extensive skilled work experience, and PhD degrees; points will no longer be awarded for specific occupations. Also, the number of points needed to qualify is expected to be set at 65, down from 100 to 120, depending on the visa category.
Question: Will any of these countries backtrack if they perceive their changes make them less competitive in the global market?