Advanced industrialized societies aren't always able to find within their own ranks all of the highly skilled workers essential to occupations ranging from mathematics to engineering and high-tech to the medical field.
And, although policymakers know that the long-term solution is to improve their educational and training systems, highly skilled immigrants present the best near-term solution to fill shortages and enhance competitiveness. That's why gloomy economic forecasts do not seem to have slowed the hunt for highly skilled migrants or foreign students, whose locally earned degrees and language skills make them an obvious talent pool.
The European Union's proposed Blue Card, intended to attract high-skilled workers from outside the European Union, moved forward this fall, and EU ministers are expected to formally adopt the proposal in early 2009 after the Czech Republic assumes the EU presidency.
The Blue Card system will be implemented in 2011, on a slower timetable than expected, because the Czech Republic and other newer Member States were concerned about the Blue Card going into effect before they gain full access to labor markets across the European Union.
The United Kingdom has opted out of the Blue Card (as have Denmark and Ireland), preferring instead to rely on its new points system and a national-labor-market approach to managing migration.
Tier 1 of the UK points system — rolled out to applicants in India in April and to applicants worldwide in late July — targets the highly skilled but does not require applicants to have a job offer. The UK government has not yet reported the number of Tier 1 applications.
Tier 2, which grants permits to skilled workers who meet English language requirements and have job offers, went live at the end of November.
In addition, the new system allows foreign graduates of UK universities to stay in the country, look for a job, and transition to Tier 1 or Tier 2, rather than requiring them to leave. This approach is intended to make the United Kingdom as attractive as Australia, which implemented a student-to-skilled-worker scheme in 1999 that helped triple its number of foreign students. By 2002, former students constituted over 50 percent of Australia's skilled-migrant applications.
Both the United Kingdom and Australia ranked highly in a recent review of 17 countries' university systems by the Lisbon Council, in part because of their ability to attract foreign students. (The United States still has the largest number of foreign students worldwide, but Australia is not far behind).
Facing labor shortages in certain sectors, Sweden decided to court the highly skilled, particularly from India, by making its work-permit system more flexible starting in mid-December. No longer will government agencies decide if certain skills already exist in Sweden.
Instead, Sweden has decided that employers should drive the process of determining when a third-country national is necessary. Work permits will be valid for up to two years and renewable for up to four years, with the option of permanent residency at the four-year point. In addition, Sweden is allowing foreign students to apply for work permits while they are still in the country.
To make Canada more competitive in attracting and retaining skilled migrants, the Canadian government launched the Canadian Experience Class (CEC) in September. CEC grants permanent residence to certain temporary foreign workers and foreign graduates of Canadian universities who have Canadian work experience.
France has made increasing flows of highly skilled migrants a policy priority since revising its immigration laws in 2006. Its push continued this year, notably in Asia. France's ambassador to Singapore courted skilled workers there in a meeting with local journalists in October.
The idea that global powers are in a hotly contested race for highly skilled talent remains more anecdotal than evidence-based, since salaries for such workers have not increased dramatically.
Still, there are signs of competition. Witness the move this past summer by the Canadian province of Alberta to woo H-1B visa holders in the United States with the promise of faster permanent residency in Canada.