Luring global knowledge workers is essential for any industrialized nation adopting and adapting to the social media economy of this century.
Taiwan’s transformation from labor-intensive industry into a high-tech powerhouse in the 1990s owed much to its effective integration of cutting-edge research in the US and relatively cheap manufacturing facilities.
Since the 1960s, many Taiwanese have received post-graduate degrees in the US and have become successful knowledge workers and entrepreneurs. At that time, most decent jobs in Taiwan were filled by people with good connections to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime. The lack of employment opportunities prompted Taiwanese scientists, engineers and researchers to seek further training the US.
After graduating from universities and research institutes, these knowledge workers found it rewarding to remain overseas, gaining more advanced knowledge and work experience; expanding professional networks; and improving their socioeconomic status. They fulfilled their dreams and climbed the social ladder to become upper middle-class professionals living in US suburbia.
As historian Madeline Hsu argued in her 2015 book The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority, the earlier generation of Taiwanese-Americans could not have achieved such remarkable accomplishments if they had not accessed the advanced research laboratories and communities of first-class scientists. The appeal of scientific innovation and technological advancement has inspired generations of students to move to the US.
The US benefits enormously from the influx of these highly-trained Taiwanese workers, whether as permanent residents or short-term workers. US firms tap into this huge advanced labor pool without paying for its rearing and training, and it has raised productivity and enhanced the US’ technological dominance in the global manufacturing chain.
Despite US President Donald Trump’s “America first” rhetoric, most high-tech companies bypass strict labor restrictions by hiring qualified overseas candidates to work in their research and development centers in Canada, Britain, Singapore and Hong Kong.
In the past, the severe brain drain was perceived by KMT administrations as a waste of investment in human capital. However, the global circulation of technological knowledge and human capital is a two-way street. The Taiwanese-American workforce has provided a rich reservoir of value-added human talent for Taiwan.
Embracing a neoliberal, market-driven economy in the 1980s, the government offered attractive tax-reduction packages and reasonably cheap manufacturing facilities for global companies. Competent, entrepreneurial and mobile Taiwanese-American knowledge workers returned home to shape the development of information technology.
With their rich experience and strong professional ties in the US, they created an invisible transnational highway that facilitated technical knowledge transfer and capital infusion.
Taiwanese universities train more competent students in all professions than the domestic economy can absorb. The government has set out to address this structural problem by relaxing legal restrictions on recruiting qualified investors, entrepreneurs and white-collar professionals from abroad.
It is far more important to ensure that Taiwanese can tap into the knowledge assets and business networks of foreign professionals. Only by doing so would Taiwan witness another wave of global knowledge transfer, capital infusion and infrastructure upgrades.
Joseph Tse-hei Lee is professor of history at Pace University in New York.
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