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This article was published on September 12, 2019

Aliens of extraordinary abilities

How tackling the tech industry’s chronic skills shortage calls for a creative approach to welcoming foreign talent.

Aliens of extraordinary abilities
Alice Bonasio
Story by

Alice Bonasio

Technology writer for #TechTrends, Wired, FastCo, Quartz and others. Startup advisor and strategic communications extraordinaire. Technology writer for #TechTrends, Wired, FastCo, Quartz and others. Startup advisor and strategic communications extraordinaire.

It’s a situation I’m all too familiar with from my years working in the London start-up scene. It is a dog-eat-dog environment where it came to attracting, poaching, and holding on to talent.

At every company I worked for, I was constantly being offered cash incentives to refer candidates for the many roles that needed filling by yesterday if our roadmap had any hope of being adhered to – and this was before the whole Brexit mess and uncertainty started to make things even more difficult for everyone.

But in the U.S. the situation is, if anything, even more desperate, with an estimated 1 million computer programming jobs expected to go unfilled by 2020. Yet at the same time, there are many highly qualified foreign individuals who do want to move to, work and contribute to the economy of cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.

So although the much-talked-about digital skills gap is certainly an issue, the problem isn’t limited to a simple mismatch between talent supply and demand. The artificial barriers that bureaucracy and politics put between willing and qualified workers and the jobs which will remain vacant if they are not there to fill them is the elephant in the proverbial room.

On the one hand, Silicon Valley boasts the highest salaries and best work culture which makes it a potentially attractive option for foreign engineers, yet these often overqualified and talented individuals face an almost impossible chicken-and-egg conundrum where employers are reluctant to hire workers without visas, but it is often impossible to obtain a visa without having first secured an employer’s sponsorship.

Furthermore, the U.S. immigration policy – and recent escalation of what is arguably an anti-immigrant rhetoric from the federal government are certainly factors that makes it harder for companies to realize and scale their vision, but so are considerations that anybody considering becoming an expat has to take into account, such as relocation costs.

Having applied for my husband’s Green Card not so long ago, I have nothing but sympathy and respect for anyone obtaining a visa, and knowing just how complicated that process can be, I wasn’t at all surprised to find out that an increasing number of tech companies over here are now engaging with services that work to make that transition a bit smoother and more seamless.

One relatively little-known avenue that is a particularly good fit for the industry is the O-1 visa program which, contrary to popular belief, is not something reserved for Oscar-winning actors and Nobel laureates.

In order to be granted the rather amusing-sounding title of “Alien of Extraordinary Abilities,” one must meet at least three criteria from a list of eight which includes winning recognized prizes or awards in their area of expertise, authoring scholarly articles published in professional journals, earning a high salary in their country of origin in comparison to their peers, or judging the work of others in their professional field. Only about 1% of overall visa applicants qualify, but as you might expect, the technology industry’s demand for highly skilled jobs means that a lot of the candidates who are qualified to fill them also naturally happen to meet such criteria.

But although qualifying is already a major achievement, it is only the beginning of the journey, as the process of getting the O-1 visa costs around $13,000 and can take several months, all without a guarantee of success, since technicalities can often throw the process off-course or stop it altogether.

That is one reason why solutions such as Income Sharing Agreements (ISAs) – where the application process and upfront costs – as well as some of the inevitable and substantial relocation expenses associated with moving to a different country – are handled by companies such as LA-based PassRight and then recouped from the applicant’s salary once they settle into their new employment – are becoming increasingly popular

Last year alone, PassRight has helped 124 such extraordinary aliens obtain the O-1 Visa and start work in the U.S., and talent relocation expert Liran Rosenfeld believes that the adoption of solutions such as the ISAs facilitated by the Global Talent Fund will boost those numbers considerably going forward, as it will remove the risk factor that is putting off a lot of talented individuals from applying.

Overall this represents a very interesting trend which puts the rhetoric around immigration and freedom of movement in context. With passions running high, it is often easy to lose sight of the fact that migration is essential to economic growth, and that finding ways to connect talent and demand can make the difference between a thriving business and a failed one in the digital age.

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