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The Borderless Workforce: 2008

The movement of talent is a growing part of the reality of managing what is rapidly becoming a borderless work force. Individuals are increasingly willing and able to find employment far from their homes, whether they are Filipino electricians working in Western Australia or Indian petrochemical engineers working in the Arabian Gulf states. More people are living and working away from their home countries than at any other point in history.

Just as important as transnational talent movements are the migrations within national borders. China is struggling to meter the rush of individuals leaving its poorer western provinces in search of better jobs in the glittering commercial hubs of the country's East Coast. Japan has seen a huge population shift to its cities, imperiling its agricultural industry. Norway must deal with the emptying of its rural north. And Mexico's southern states contend with what they see as a massive talent drain to the industrialized northern border states.

The complexities are many. These are not the one-time, one-way migrations of yesteryear. Talent goes where talent is needed, and flights home are readily available for those who wish to return. Work is moving too, as businesses set up operations near new markets and sources of supply. The mobility of money is a huge factor, with remittances - the money that emigrant workers send back to their families in their home countries - becoming the invisible reverse footprints of their journeys to their new jobs. Remittances now constitute a vast sub-economy upon which many nations depend to sustain their gross domestic product.

At the same time, economies are not static, yet many organizations and employees behave as if they are. Just one example: auto workers around the U.S. car-making capital of Detroit are having to face the fact that the demand for their skills is waning in that region, forcing them to make decisions about retraining for other types of work, or relocating to where their skills are needed.

Over all aspects of talent mobility falls the shadow of government policy - evidenced in immigration constraints, border fences, inward investment programs, education initiatives, regional development incentives, and on and on. Government policies toward emigration issues have long been matters evoking strong voter sentiment in many countries, but today there is real cause for concern at the rise of what is being called "the new nationalism," with the policy pendulum swinging toward preventing immigration, rather than managing it strategically to benefit the needs of the labor market.

This white paper is the next step in Manpower's ongoing effort to shed light on the complexities of today's global workforce and to help organizations think in terms of the dynamic, long-term supply and demand of people - skilled and unskilled. This paper gives dimension to the scope, scale and sheer volatility of the movement of people to new work far from their homes. We explore the challenges and opportunities that talent mobility poses for the individuals themselves and we flag the continued and alarming pervasiveness of worker exploitation. We examine how employers are responding to the fluidity of talent, highlight the rare successes, and emphasize what has to happen soon - at both business and government levels - if talent mobility is to become a central component of thoughtful, forward-looking business strategy and economic policy.

Weaving through this paper is a story of twos. There are two categories of workers, blue collar and white collar, with quite different aspirations and patterns of movement. There is another divide between skilled employees and the unskilled: skilled employees benefit from steady market demand for their services; unskilled workers continue to struggle to get a foothold on the economic ladder. There are two kinds of borders - national borders, of course, but also borders within countries that affect the movement of people. There are diametrically opposing forces affecting government policy toward migration: globalization on the one hand, national sovereignty on the other.

Manpower's many studies of employment patterns also reveal two types of responses by employers and governments: tactical, reactive and generally defensive on the one hand, and holistic, realistic, fact-based and firmly focused on the future supply and demand of labor on the other. It is our wish that this paper encourages less of the former and far more of the latter.

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