The accepted wisdom about the current brain drain is that human traffic flows from east to west, with IT talent from Europe leaving home to make their fortunes in Silicon Valley and elsewhere in the US. But there are now signs that the pond may be becoming a two-way street.
A UK-based web incubator is trying to convince the thousands of European executives working in Silicon Valley to come back. Philip Crawford, chairman of Internet Incubator, said that many of them attend a European expatriates club in San Francisco called Eurotrash, which the firm plans to target.
"There are lots of people who come over to do MBA degrees, stay for a while, but for family reasons want to come back," he explained. "But you've lost your network. We can give them a bit of a safety net by providing good solid opportunities."
Crawford, who was previously president of EDS International, said that his company is aiming at ex-pats from the UK, France and Italy - fewer Germans leave their country in the first place, apparently.
But Internet Incubator is not alone in wanting to ship talent from the US to Europe. Craig Coverman, global operations manager at recruiter Best, said UK customers are currently asking the firm to import US executives. Adverts are mainly online and in newspapers, but some staff are being approached directly.
"There is a bigger availability of people who have one or two projects under their belts," he said, rating cities such as Seattle, New York, Boston and Chicago, and the state of North Carolina, as good target areas alongside Silicon Valley.
Because Americans are less bothered about travelling long distances, this may be a particularly good option for firms that are unable to find talent in their region or cannot persuade ex-pat Brits to return.
"If you're selling a job to someone outside the UK, they will just see it as England, and say it's three hours to London. That's nothing to drive in the US," he said.
But Coverman warned that such executives will only be tempted by good offers. "They aren't going to go thousands of miles for a dodgy dotcom," he said.
Furthermore, they will expect a similar standard of living to that which they enjoy at home, and this may mean paying them more than the UK average, especially if a potential employer is based in London. According to The Economist, it is almost a fifth more expensive to live in London than in New York, which is considered pricey by US standards.
But some executives are willing to move to expand their experience in areas where the US lags behind Europe, such as mobile telephony.
Michael Matthews, European president of professional services firm Agency.com, made the move to the UK 15 months ago. "It wasn't because there was a better range of jobs. I think some of us internet senior execs are coming over because the world of multiple digital channels is happening [in Europe], not in the US," he said.
"The wireless and interactive digital TV channels are exploding in Europe and will explode in the US over the next two to three years. So when I want to go back [in that time], my experience will be enormously valuable," he added.
But many US executives need to be reminded that Europe is not an homogenous area in terms of progress or culture.
Roger Willmott, vice president of information systems at the UK branch of US e-tailer Buy.com, agreed that this is also the reason some companies prefer to have UK staff working at UK sites. "The markets over here and the country localisation is very different to the States," he explained. "If Americans do come over, you would still need UK people to understand how the market works here."
He believes that US staff are most likely to move because they want to work in Europe for a spell, but said that he has had very few job applications from US professionals.
Filling the gap
One difficulty that is starting to recede for Americans is obtaining UK government permission to work in this country. The Department for Education and Employment has developed a fast-track work permit scheme that UK employers can use to import staff for jobs where there is a UK skills shortage.
The government has also removed the requirement that organisations demonstrate a lack of equivalent UK or European workers that are available to do the job. The scheme covers IT managers, business and network analysts, and programmers with knowledge of web languages, databases and customer relationship management applications. See http://www.dfee.gov.uk/ols for more details.
A further move is the testing of a 'self-certification' initiative under which international companies can move staff to the UK with minimal interference from the state. Immigration minister Barbara Roche told a conference in Paris last week that the UK goverment is thinking of allowing skilled 'economic' migrants to gain entry into the UK, rather than largely restricting immigration to those claiming refugee status.
"Visas are not an issue," said Coverman, adding that one particular government plan to add an 'innovator' category to the fast-track scheme to allow entrepreneurs to enter the country more easily, will be of particular interest.
Another unexpected way of tempting US IT staff appears to be gaining sway in the Netherlands. David Brooks, author of BoBos [Bohemian Bourgeoisie] in Paradise was recently quoted in the US edition of Business 2.0 magazine, as saying that some [unnamed] software companies were opening offices in the country so that Americans could take advantage of Dutch tolerance towards soft drugs.
But it is doubtful whether the UK government would go that far to try and fulfil its aim of making the country the best place in the world to do ecommerce by 2002.
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