Opinion 250: Pittsburgh's lost opportunities
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Since I came to Pittsburgh to run the business-process improvement firm SYCOR AMERICAS Inc., I have been telling everyone I know how great life is here -- beautiful, safe and affordable, easy to get around, great schools and short commutes.
SYCOR chose Pittsburgh as the American base to grow our international business for all of those reasons, and also for the simple fact that we're within a day's travel of most of our clients, not to mention an enormous pool of potential new clients, many of them in the Pittsburgh area.
Things are going pretty well for SYCOR in Pittsburgh. Our sales have doubled in each of the past two years. Our staff is growing, and we continue to build our name recognition as an international business-process consulting firm that offers a high level of service to a wide range of clients.
That's the good news. The bad news is that even in Pittsburgh, SYCOR could be growing much more quickly if we didn't face significant obstacles beyond our control.
We are very disappointed in the lack of direct international flights to and from Pittsburgh. But probably the biggest challenge we face is finding good people. We are constantly on the lookout for talented consultants to join the SYCOR team, and if they were available in the United States, we would hire them. But eligible U.S. citizens are working in the states already or moving away.
Just as we serve our customers internationally, we have looked all over the globe to find new staff members. Thanks to a major recruiting program we have slowly found new people, both in the United States and elsewhere. Unfortunately, we have had great difficulty getting global recruits into this country due to the limited number of H1-b working visas.
The number of these visas for educated professionals has dropped from 195,000 per year in the 1990s to 65,000. Back in the spring of 2007, applications representing more than double the annual allotment were received in the first two days, prompting the first electronic lottery for H1-b visas.
Imagine that -- about 160,000 employment contracts were signed with American companies that needed people with specific skills who were not available in this country, but almost 100,000 of the eligible professionals from elsewhere were rejected for visas simply due to an arbitrary quota. Aside from what those people would have produced here in the United States, their exclusion represented $10 billion in lost salaries if you figure that each of them would have earned about $100,000.
This country needs major reform in how it imports professionals. The limits on our ability to bring in international recruits has hampered our opportunities to grow, which means they have hampered the opportunity for Pittsburgh and Allegheny County and the commonwealth of Pennsylvania to grow, as well.
Here's another problem. SYCOR consultants need to move back and forth across the Canadian border because many of our clients have locations in both the United States and Canada. But H1-b visa employees are very limited in their ability to cross the border, if they are allowed to do so at all.
This restrictive policy is having a direct, negative impact on potential economic growth in Pittsburgh. Why? Because Canada is nowhere near as restrictive as the United States, and SYCOR has the option to bring new international staff members to our offices in Montreal and Toronto. That means some economic growth that otherwise would occur in Pittsburgh benefits Canada instead.
What we have is an opportunity to at least partially counteract the off-shoring trend that has been the subject of so much criticism lately. SYCOR and many other firms want to in-source. We want to bring work back to the United States. We want to bring skilled foreign workers into this country. They're not displacing anybody. We've already tried to hire locally, and we've had limited success. And still, restrictive immigration policies are tying our hands.
Another factor to consider is how we market the Pittsburgh region. I've suggested an "EriO" initiative. It's similar to the Great Lakes Economic Initiative that involves combined economic development efforts by states around the Great Lakes, including Pennsylvania.
The EriO concept draws on that idea, except that it brings together the American states and the Canadian provinces that border Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. We would pool our resources to bring new companies to this expanded region and work on ways to simplify border restrictions so that goods and people could cross seamlessly, without jeopardizing national security. They do it in Europe -- why can't we do it here? Many of us already are working on a plan to make this happen.
Let's face it, the Pittsburgh area is not really competing against Cleveland and Buffalo and Toronto. The entire Great Lakes region is competing for the next international investment dollar with Shanghai and Mumbai and Dubai, and we must work together to make it more attractive to investors.
Let's create a vision for what we can all accomplish in the future. Let's think of ways to improve our transportation systems. Let's figure out how to attract more international talent and make security concerns manageable so people can cross the border quickly and easily. Let's prepare our children for the great opportunities in the increasingly global economy. I think we're starting to see it happen, and I'm excited to be a part of it.
First Published March 23, 2008 12:00 am