America’s Employer Brand in the Age of Global Recruiting

In the global war for talent, the United States has always been able to rely on our strong appeal as a land of opportunity to attract the best and brightest talent from around the world. With the rise of other economies like China, India, and Singapore, we are seeing increased competition for these resources, and in many ways we may be at a disadvantage. It’s time to start thinking about America’s employer brand and the effect it has on our ability to recruit quality talent.

Whether you recruit in San Diego, California, or Lima, Ohio, you know how important location is in recruiting. It has the potential to be your greatest asset or present your greatest challenges. In order to make a potentially life-changing decision like changing locations, candidates will look at quality of life, cost of living, and the base of other companies and future opportunities available in your area. Where you live has a huge impact on who you can recruit. In the global talent marketplace, the United States has always been seen as the land of opportunity. U.S.-based companies have been able to ride this wave to recruit the best and brightest from around the world. Our leadership position has been particularly strong in math and the sciences: With 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States employs nearly one-third of all scientists and engineers. Half of the Ph.D.’s in the United States are foreign-born. Half of Americans who have won Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry were born abroad. We are therefore highly reliant on immigration to produce our best and brightest. Yet there is strong evidence that we are losing our lead and that global recruiting is about to get more difficult.

Is America’s Edge Slipping?

If you want a glimpse into the possible future of global recruiting, I would suggest you read two books with somewhat similar sounding names: Flight Capital: The Alarming Exodus of America’s Best and Brightest and The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent. These books are great supplements to the equally excellent The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman, which focuses primarily on the global outsourcing trend and how technology is leveling the playing field in the global marketplace. In the first (and most recent) book, Flight Capital, author David Heenan explores how rising economies in places like China and India are resulting in “boomerang migrations,” or expatriate workers who are returning to their home countries. It stands to reason that workers would prefer to do work in their homelands, close to their families, and within more familiar environments and cultures.

Our increasing globalization and new opportunities in their native lands make this possible. According to Heenan, “on its present course, America’s nation of immigrants will become a nation of emigrants.” In particular, the book focuses on knowledge workers in math and the sciences. If we lost our edge in math and sciences, one might reason that our advantage will always be in American ingenuity and creative thinking. But even this “creative class” is at risk, as author Richard Florida argues in The Flight of the Creative Class. Somewhat controversially, he argues that other governments like Canada, Scandinavia, and New Zealand provide less repressive environments that might be more attractive to creative thinkers — and shows how the loss of even a few creative geniuses could have a significant impact.

Immigration, Emigration, and the Skills Gap

Many of us in the recruiting industry are rightly concerned about the Baby Boomers retiring and the potential for large skills shortages. For decades, immigration has not just been a source of very specialized talent; it has been a magic bullet of sorts for any skills gaps. Without serious shifts in U.S. government strategy and policy, immigration actually has the potential to be more of a problem than a solution over the next several years. Due to security concerns following 9/11, the United States has enacted the tightest immigration laws in recent times, reducing the number of H1-B visas from almost 800,000 in 2000 to approximately 80,000 in 2005. Emigration is also a very real threat, and not just with math and science experts or creative talent. The brain drain of U.S. citizens might reach all the way up to the executive suite. According to a study by the Association of Executive Search Consultants, over 50 percent of U.S. executives surveyed would relocate to China, and approximately 35 percent would go to countries like India or Russia, all of whom would be hungry for the experience these executives have building and operating successful companies here in the United States.

The Government Responds

In the President’s most recent State of the Union address, we heard about an interesting program that lays out a new workforce plan for the United States: the American Competitiveness Initiative. The proposed initiative lays a foundation for increased spending in R&D and education plans designed to help us build rather than continue to acquire our math and science workforce. The program includes:

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  • Increased spending and tax credits for R&D.
  • Math and science education initiatives.
  • Teacher training in math and science.
  • A program for math and science professionals to become adjunct faculty at the high-school level.

And almost as if in response to the books mentioned above and China’s growing share of the global economy, part of the competitiveness proposal is to reform our nation’s immigration system to allow us to more easily hire highly skilled workers from around the world. But will they want to come?

A New Challenge: America’s Employer Brand

The competitiveness proposal is a great workforce planning step for our country. But the biggest challenge facing anyone in a global recruiting role is America’s employer brand. According to Flight Capital, “countries from Iceland to India are launching bold initiatives to lure top talent away from the United States.” Compounding this problem is the fact that our image in the world has slipped in recent years, as demonstrated by the Pew Global Attitudes Project. In the future, it may be much more difficult for recruiters to sell international talent on working in the United States. Our quality of life remains very high — among the highest in the world, if not the highest — yet other “Third World” economies are catching up fast. I spent a week in Malaysia several months ago, and was stunned to see the infrastructure they have built and the work they have done in attracting leading companies and investments. Countries like Taiwan, Singapore, China, Israel, and Ireland can boast of similar success stories. Meanwhile, other countries are beginning to more aggressively poach from our talent pool. The Contact Singapore program, designed to help the country poach top global talent, reports that recruiting efforts have gotten easier with recent security concerns. The Irish Development Authority is running recruitment ads in the United States, while also holding the equivalent of job fairs in locations like New York City. And countries with their own demographic challenges, like Japan, Germany, Canada, the UK, Spain, and Australia are all beginning to open up their borders to and actively seek out new immigrants.

To compete in the global marketplace for talent, you will soon have to sell the United States as a location as much as the company you work for and the jobs you have available. This will require that global recruiting teams think even more like marketers than ever before, and learn how to position the United States against other cultures and countries. It will also necessitate a more aggressive approach to global recruiting that pools the resources of less powerful individual employers and government agencies in order to counteract the aggressive tactics of other countries. Continuing to sell the employment value proposition you have established to foreign workers you have already recruited will also be of paramount concern in the years to come.

Dave Lefkow is currently the CEO of talentspark (, a consulting firm that helps companies use technology to gain a competitive advantage for talent, and a regular contributor to ERE on human capital, technology, and branding related subjects. He is also an international speaker on human capital trends and best practices, having spoken in countries as close as Canada and as far away as Malaysia and Australia. His consulting work has spanned a wide variety of industries and recruiting challenges with companies like Starbucks, Boeing, HP, Microsoft, Expedia, Washington Mutual, Nike and Swedish Medical Center.