What has Mark Carney, the Canadian who runs the Bank of England, got in common with a Spanish surgical nurse and a Premier League footballer from Ivory Coast? The answer is that they are migrant workers. Not just any sort of migrant worker; all three are members of a global elite who possess skills that are highly sought-after among the wealthiest countries.
The TV news would have you believe that all migrants are desperate people who travel in dangerous, leaky boats and end up squatting in slums where they are bullied by the police. But we also know there is another sort of migrant who is actively recruited, sometimes by government organizations, and who might travel business class. The flow of talent out of developing countries is accelerating and, increasingly, the destination for this elite work force is four Anglo-Saxon countries: Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States.
The proportion of the world's population that lives in a country other than where they were born is 3 per cent, a figure that hasn't changed much in 50 years, says the World Bank's report, Global Talent Flows. What has changed is its composition in terms of skills, earning power and gender. Census data from OECD countries tells us that there were 28 million highly skilled migrants (those with tertiary-level education) in the OECD in 2010, a rise of 130 per cent since 1990. To put that in perspective, the growth rate in the numbers of low-skilled migrants (those with only primary education) was just 40 per cent and it is clear the extraordinary surge in skilled-worker migration is no accident.
Government policies, such as the points-based immigration screening adopted by Australia and Canada, as well as the global shortage of workers with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) qualifications, are sucking young people out of the developing world and into laboratories, universities and hospitals in rich countries. And it is not a huge surprise to learn the United States is winning this race to hire footloose talent. In 2010, the United States was home to 11 million highly skilled foreigners, some 41 per cent of the entire OECD population of elite migrant workers, and California is where many are to be found; in 2013, 70 per cent of Silicon Valley's software engineers were foreign-born.
Who can blame talented graduates from India for taking up job offers at Microsoft or Caltech? What is astonishing is not just the acceleration of the so-called "brain drain" but its concentration among a small number of English-speaking countries. Australia, Canada, Britain and the United States account for 70 per cent of the elite migrant population and the winner-takes-all scenario seems to play out in glittering prizes for migrant STEM workers who end up in American laboratories. According to the World Bank, of all the Nobel prizes won for chemistry, medicine, economics and physics, almost a third were awarded to immigrants of whom more than half were working at American institutions.
More astonishing, however, than the California Nobel gold rush, is the rise of the talented female migrant whose numbers now outstrip the population of highly skilled males. Between 1990 and 2010, the numbers of highly skilled women working abroad in the OECD rose to 14.4 million from 5.7 million. The severe shortage of doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals in the richer OECD countries probably accounts for a great deal of this increase.
The soaring migration rates of highly educated women from poorer countries is cause for concern. They represent a big loss, not just for their work skills but for the effect a vanishing class of talented females might have on a society where women are struggling to improve their social and economic status.
Brain drain can be reversed and India has shown that many of the first generation of expat workers in the United States have returned and developed successful businesses bringing back their skills and wealth. However, the social and economic impact of the migration of highly skilled workers should not only be examined in their home countries.
Where there is a brain drain, there may also be a brain in the drain. If successful economies are sucking in labour by the millions, it may be in part due to a global shortage of talent but it is also due to their own dysfunctional labour markets. At the time of the Brexit referendum, a surgical unit from the Homerton hospital in London did a group photo with each member of the team holding a sign showing their (foreign) nationality: a surgeon from Pakistan, an Irish radiographer, a German anaesthetist, a Greek urologist and three Spanish nurses.
The majority of Britons were unimpressed by the discovery that the National Health Service was staffed by so many foreigners. We are now rapidly moving into a new world in which a global class of elite workers services at great expense the needs of a large population of immobile and unskilled people. This is probably not sustainable, but we have barely begun to even consider what to do about it.
Carl Mortished is a Canadian financial journalist based in London.