Your Next Boss Will Be an Immigrant

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With all the fuss about immigrants taking jobs from Americans, could it be that immigrants are in fact creating jobs?

An interesting new report by a team of scholars from the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University and the University of California, Berkeley, School of Information seems to suggest so. They took a unique approach: to understand the “intellectual contribution” of immigrants, they combed through and analyzed patent applications. Of engineering and technology companies started in the U.S. between 1995 and 2005, the researchers found:

* a quarter had at least one foreign-born founder.
* in 2005, immigrant-founded companies produced $52 billion in revenue and employed 450,000 nationwide.
* almost 80% of immigrant-founded companies were in two industries: software and innovation/manufacturing services.
* in Florida, Hispanics led the pack among immigrant groups that founded companies. In Massachusetts, Israelis led. In New Jersey, they were Indians.

America prides itself on being a country of innovators, and it seems immigrants are the most prolific. In their analysis of world patent databases, the researchers found that nearly a quarter of international patent applications were filed by foreign nationals living in the U.S. (the biggest group: Chinese). The invention bug is biting foreigners more frequently, too: the number of patent applications by “non-citizen immigrants” living in the U.S. grew from 7.3% in 1998 to 24.2% in 2006.

So what does this mean for the American, non-immigrant (at least, non-recent-immigrant) worker? Among other things, it means your boss is far more likely to be foreign-born. The researchers focused on Silicon Valley to discover the impact of this trend on one region, and found that over half of start-ups there had at least one founder who was born overseas (India or China, most likely). Take the hottest names in technology today: Google, whose co-founder Sergey Brin was born in Russia, and YouTube, whose co-founder Steve Chen was born in Taiwan.

(I imagine this could present some interesting cultural issues in the workplace–the reverse of what many workers in other countries are experiencing as the outsourcing craze assigns them American bosses. If you work for a foreign-born boss, write in and we’ll explore.)

Of course, as lead researcher Vivek Wadhwa of Duke points out in an e-mail, “these non-immigrant citizens are typically foreign graduate students completing their PhD’s, green card holders awaiting citizenship, and employees of multinationals on temporary visas.” In other words, they’re legal.

What the Lou Dobbses and Bill O’Reillys decry is the impact on the workforce of foreign workers here illegally. In a Sept. 2006 report, researchers at the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University found that

of the 4.1 million new immigrant workers, between 1.4 and 2.7 million are estimated to be illegal immigrants… Among men, new immigrants accounted for all of the rise in employment, as the total number of employed men in the nation increased by only 2.665 million while the number of employed new immigrant males was 2.767 million during 2005. For the first time since the end of World War II, there has been no gain in employment among native-born men over a five-year period.

In other words, new immigrants–even illegal ones–filled millions of jobs, while one segment of Americans–young men–found themselves shut out.

I realize we’re talking apples and oranges here, but, in fact, the issues aren’t so unrelated. We paint workplace issues in this country with a broad brush; just try Googling “immigrant worker” and you’ll see what I mean. In fact, of the 4 million workers who arrived here over the past five years–from India and Mexico and Taiwan, carrying degrees in programming or only the shirts on their backs–all have one thing in common: they just want to work. And work is what this country needs to move forward.

Listen to me. How’s that for a platitude? And I’m not even running for office. Thoughts, opinions, foreign-boss stories? Post a comment. Please.