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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

November 17, 2011 at 9:40 AM

China takes aim at Western talent

Seattle is gaining a new competitor where it matters: Not in low cost but in the global rivalry to lure top talent. As Vivek Wadhwa reported in the Washington Post, China is moving away from its old inward-looking policies toward an attempt to lure top researchers from the West to work in its R&D labs and state-owned companies:

China has a severe shortage of skilled talent and, in a policy reversal, has decided to open its doors to talent from around the world. This could mean that the brilliant NASA scientists the U.S. laid off, could find new employment — and a new home — in Shanghai or Beijing.

Chinese research labs have long had difficulty recruiting qualified workers to perform necessary research and development, and its corporations struggle to find competent managers. The situation will likely get worse as China’s high-tech industries grow and it increases its national R&D spending from the present 1.62 percent of GDP, according to the Chinese government, to the planned 2.5 percent by 2020. China’s President Hu Jintao, in May 2010, declared talent development a national priority in order to fill the void.

To be sure, Americans might not like the restrictions that would come with working for Chinese companies. But U.S. research and development spending is falling, government is cutting back and jobs are more scarce.

Among several efforts being pushed by Beijing is the “Thousand Foreign Talents Program,” designed to bring engineers, scientists and other researchers of Chinese background back from the West. This might not matter much to Phoenix or Orlando, but it is a danger to Seattle, an innovation city built on attracting and retaining top world talent. When I interviewed John McAdam, chief executive of F5 Networks earlier this year, he said his most important job was finding the most talented employees. It’s the Seattle story.

This makes it all the more important that the University of Washington has seen a significant rise in the enrollment of foreign students, as the Times’ Katherine Long reported. Policies need to be in place to encourage the stars to stay. Yet as Richard Florida argued in his book, Flight of the Creative Class, America’s anti-immigrant attitudes since 9/11 are doing just the opposite.

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Comments | More in China economy and business, Tech economy

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