Jamie Merisotis wants to shake things up.
I’m talking over the air with Merisotis, the president and chief executive officer of the Lumina Foundation, one of the world’s largest philanthropic organizations in higher education. We’re discussing his new book, America Needs Talent: Attracting, Educating and Deploying the 21st Century Workforce.
In the book, Merisotis offers sweeping recommendations to make America more competitive and responsive in a world that is becoming increasingly Darwinian. Among other things, he wants to reform higher education, revitalize urban areas and strengthen the relationships between government agencies, for-profit organizations and not-for-profits.
All of this is interesting – and some of it is quite persuasive – but the idea of his that most intrigues me is one that involves immigration.
Immigration now is the most toxic debate in our national dialogue. Nothing – not equal rights for gays, not reproductive rights, not even race relations – stirs up the same noxious stew of seething animosities that immigration does.
And that has hurt us as a nation.
Merisotis points out that we are a nation of immigrants and that America long has benefited from the industry and initiative immigrants have brought with them to our shores.
“But things have changed, and our ability to encourage greater diversity through immigration – and harness the energy and drive that immigrants bring to our shores – has been hampered by years of policy drift and outright hostility to even minor changes in the immigration system,” Merisotis writes.
Part of the problem, Merisotis notes, is that the discussion we have about immigration is driven almost entirely by our fears. Thus, we cast the debate in negative terms: How can immigrants harm us? What will they cost us? How can we keep them out?
Merisotis’s suggestion is that we turn that approach on its head. Instead of devoting all of our energy and attention on keeping out the immigrants we don’t want, we instead should focus on attracting the immigrants we do want.
He says that every country – every economy – has skills gaps, sectors in which the demand for talent is greater than the supply. The forward-thinking countries have adapted their immigration policies to fill those gaps. They create incentives within their immigration systems to entice people who can make contributions to the life of the nation.
That only makes sense.
Most economists now tell us that the developed world is fast approaching a world-wide labor shortage. By 2030 – 15 short years from now – the world’s most economically sophisticated countries will be locked in a heated and high-stakes competition for skilled workers.
The globe will shrink at that point. The countries that position themselves to attract the best and most skilled workers will survive and thrive. Those that don’t – well, they won’t.
Other nations have started to prepare to meet the realities of this soon-to-be shrunken globe.
Here in the United States, though, the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump, likes to boast that he’ll build a long wall along one of our borders. (He does this, of course, when he’s not demeaning Muslims, Mexicans, women or, most recently, Americans with disabilities.)
As Merisotis and I talk about his plan to revise our immigration policies, I find myself thinking about how large a role fear plays in so many of our national discussions – and what that says about us as a country.
Our leaders, left and right, like to offer fulsome tributes to entrepreneurs, but it’s hard to believe that they really mean it. If they did, they wouldn’t spend so much time trying to scare us senseless.
Real entrepreneurs – and real leaders, for that matter – find the opportunity that lies within or behind a frightening or threatening situation. Capitalism, after all, is at its heart little more than a system of rewarding people who identify and solve problems.
An entrepreneur who doesn’t want to fail can’t focus on the fear. He or she instead has to see the possibilities.
Nations can and should do the same.
And that’s Jamie Merisotis’s point.