Last week Brazil's government at last announced that it would develop a program to attract more qualified immigrants, thus heeding calls by private sector groups who had long argued that the shortage of skilled labor significantly hampered Brazil's capacity to compete internationally. Several economists both in and outside of government had also pointed out that the shortage made services in Brazil unnecessarily expensive, thus contributing to rising inflation. The decision was long overdue, yet still it comes as a surprise. Only several months ago, Paulo Sérgio de Almeida, President of the National Immigration Council (CNIG) had argued that Brazil was "sufficiently open to skilled labor from abroad".
The numbers speak a different language: With over 190 million inhabitants and a booming economy plagued by skills shortages in a whole range of sectors, the government granted only about 70,000 work visas in 2011 - too few to turn Brazil into an innovation hub. The total number of foreigners in Brazil now stands at 1.5 million (up from 1 million in 2010) - a far lower percentage than in most developed countries.
Now, it seems that the government has realized that more needs to be done to convince highly skilled talents from abroad to work in Brazil - yet success is far from guaratneed: Brazil is entering a tough fight for talents in which its fellow BRICS members are bound to be formidable adversaries.
China is becoming a R&D base for the global IT market which is leading to increased demand for junior and middle level developers from all over the world - and their salaries in China are rising rapidly, as the Financial Times wrote today. As I argued in a post in September 2010, even India, with its many technology institutes, will eventually need to import skilled labor to continue growing. Easing Brazil's visa rules may be a first step, but more innovative policies may be necessary to woo the best and brightest. The Canadian government experimented with offering permanent visas to top graduates even before they had a job offer, hoping they would eventually prosper (and create jobs) in Canada. Seemingly unimportant details often matter more to a qualified immigrant than many think: Many top talents prefer not to come to Brazil because spouses are not allowed to work. Others prefer to countries which offer them and their families permanent visas immediately.
A second difficulty is that a growing number of unskilled immigrants can make courting highly skilled labor from abroad politically costly. The recent arrival of Haitians in the Brazilian Amazon and the hype it created in the media showed that a sustained inflow of unskilled labor could change the way Brazilians feel about immigrants. Labor unions have voiced concern about future immigration. Paulo Pereira da Silva (PDT-SP), President of the labor union Força Sindical recently argued that "these people are coming to take up the best jobs, that is the problem." Previous governments chose not to court skilled immigrants openly for fear of political backlash.
Still, if implemented quickly, a more aggressive immigration policy stands a good chance of attracting the highly qualified workers Brazil urgently needs to continue its growth story.