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New immigrants are crucial to Michigan's future

Feb 26, 2015

The Next Idea

Every American family has a genesis story about how they came to be in this country: escaping a cruel despot, searching for elusive riches, or enslaved by brutal overlords. Only the few that were made foreigners in their own lands can claim to be the original Americans. Somewhere along the way, you or your ancestors had to overcome the perils of the journey, the acquisition of the language, the challenges of employment, and the stigma of prejudice and intolerance. Regrettably, some are still struggling to this day.

America isn’t easy. We compete for everything. We work longer hours than our post-industrial rivals. We don’t get enough sleep. We don’t take adequate time off. Our über-enterprising culture is viewed as both a form of collective dysfunction and a source of social vitality. Ironically, it may well be that America became the innovation juggernaut it is today because of our extraordinary drive and desire for accomplishment and progress. But what is the origin of this energetic zeal that compels us to create?

The ability to attract the world's best and brightest is critical for the future of American prosperity, says Jeff DeGraff.
Credit Flickr/Icars

At the Henry Ford Museum, American ambition and ingenuity are on display everywhere. But look closely and you will undoubtedly notice that many of the greatest American inventors, artists and entrepreneurs started out as foreigners: Astor, Carnegie, Muir, Einstein, Tesla, Sikorsky and Rubinstein. The list is endless. Immigrants made us an industrial giant, a military power, an artistic and architectural marvel, and arguably the closest the world has come to a utopian society.

Michigan’s history of innovation is its history of immigration. From the early inventions that drove improvements in forestry, agriculture and mining to the contemporary innovation breakthroughs in the automotive, aerospace and biotech industries, immigrants are disproportionately represented in the creation of intellectual property. Some recent studies even suggest that immigrants represent over half of all significant patent filings in the United States. It is little wonder that many countries, such as Canada and Brazil, looking to create jobs via entrepreneurship and innovation are making it easier for educated professionals to immigrate and are succeeding – to the detriment of America.

While the president’s immigration reform initiatives are largely directed toward the status of undocumented immigrants, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has taken a different approach that focuses on the economic benefits of attracting highly skilled professionals. For example, his plans to create immigration zones in Detroit and other distressed areas drew national attention, but only tepid support in the state legislature. Though the facts suggest the need to increase the number of job-creating immigrants we invite, it remains a politically unpopular topic, and unlikely to gain the support required to make it a reality anytime soon.

It is little wonder that many countries, such as Canada and Brazil, looking to create jobs via entrepreneurship and innovation are making it easier for educated professionals to immigrate and are succeeding – to the detriment of America.

Similarly, Governor Snyder’s newly created Michigan Department of Talent and Economic Development is aimed at increasing our ability to pull highly skilled professionals and entrepreneurs into Michigan. But this approach is limited to those with U.S. citizenship or existing visas, which essentially makes this strategy a competition to draw talent away from other states.

If Michigan is going to effectively recruit and retain innovative, job-producing newcomers, it will need to apply a little creativity of its own to change the way things work now.

So what is the Next Idea?

According to a recent Inc. Magazine article, immigrants started 52 percent of all new Silicon Valley companies between 1995 and 2005. So how do we in Michigan entice some of these job-growth juggernauts?

Possible approaches for attracting the best talent to Michigan may lie in adopting models already proven effective in adjacent fields. Here are a few to start:

Military Service Model: One road to U.S. citizenship has been to serve in the military. Consider the analog: An immigrant spends three or four years working in an enterprise or not-for-profit organization targeted by the appropriate branches of the state, and receives their citizenship upon completion of their duties. These individuals could be deployed in economically distressed areas with the aim of creating jobs. More importantly, there is a reasonable chance that they will stay in these communities once they are established.

Liquor License Model: In any county there are a finite number of liquor licenses granted to restaurants and taverns. These establishments compete for these licenses, and can barter, buy and sell them. Consider the analog: Businesses in need of individuals with specialized skills that they are unable to find or attract can apply for a naturalization license. Each immigrant would have an employer who sponsors them and gives them a specific job. The criteria for receiving a license could be the strategic importance of the sector or region, and the prospects for additional job creation.

Baseball Farm Team Model: Every major league baseball team has a network of professional and semi-professional teams used to develop players. Some of these players will demonstrate their ability and be moved up to play with the big league club. Consider the analog: Michigan develops a scouting organization for identifying the most promising innovators in a number of industries and regions around the world. Given some objective criteria for success, talented individuals are promoted by the state and drafted by businesses and organizations. The immigrants can chose to play or not based on the opportunity.

Other models might include the Venture Capitalist Model or the Olympic Competition Model. Admittedly these are a bit tongue-in-cheek, but given the importance of innovation and immigration for job creation in Michigan, it might be time to use our imagination.

Finally, even though the focus here is the infusion of innovation, let’s not forget those who come with only their dreams and potential to fulfill them. The ladder of success needs to extend from top to bottom.

Jeff DeGraff is a clinical professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

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