They Lose, You Win: Benefits of Managing Talent at Country Level

How Russia’s Loss of STEM Professionals Can Be the West’s Gain

The importance of talent management is difficult to overestimate, and these issues have come to the fore with even more intensity in the past couple of years, mostly due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent “Great Resignation.” While organizations can implement numerous strategies to attract and retain talent in these difficult times, governments can also help organizations in this endeavor. Governments can systematically develop policies, programs, and activities expressly for the purpose of enhancing the quality and quantity of talent within their country to facilitate productivity, innovation, and competitiveness of their domestic and multinational enterprises. Those that choose this path for the benefit of their citizens, organizations, and societies will ultimately win the proverbial war for talent. Here is one example illustrating how that can play out—it deals with the war in Ukraine and some of its unintended consequences.  

The collective West has reacted very swiftly to the unjust, unprovoked, and completely unnecessary Russian aggression against Ukraine by providing much needed humanitarian and military assistance to the Ukrainian people. The war has also brought about a lot of righteous anger toward the Russian government and its policies, which inadvertently led to some emotional spillovers, when a few hotheads demanded canceling everything Russian, from classical music,  theater performances, and exhibitions by Russian artists to Russian food.

I argue that instead of shunning all Russians and everything Russian, the collective West should embrace those who are against the war, and whose talent—advanced knowledge, skills, and ability—may greatly benefit the West’s organizations and societies. This seems to be the most opportune time for Western countries to benefit from the exodus of Russian talent.

The war in Ukraine, besides its terrible humanitarian toll on the Ukrainian people, has prompted a profound shift in Russia as well—this was particularly reflected in the tightening of everything related to political life; further limiting freedoms of the Russian people to assemble, express their opinions, and protest against the war; and worsening economic conditions. These developments, along with the ever-increasing anti-Western hysteria on state-owned Russian TV, and diminishing economic opportunities, prompted thousands to consider leaving the country and seek refuge elsewhere. Faced with these mounting obstacles to their professional and private lives, a few hundred thousand people—mostly young, ambitious, and talented professionals—have left Russia since the war started in February 2022. As many as 300,000 Russians have left the country, with some experts estimating this number to double before the summer is over.  

Most of these new emigres are young, urban, multilingual, and highly educated (average age of 32 and 80% with at least a bachelor’s degree), and they represent Russia’s most productive part of the labor force. What is even worse for Russia is that most of those who left are STEM professionals, with expertise that is badly needed around the world. Most of them are currently settled in Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, and a few Baltic countries, but are open to move to where jobs and opportunities are.

To try to counter this exodus, the Russian government has exempted, for example, IT professionals from mandatory military service, offered superior financial provisions, and promised to provide tax breaks. All these measures, however, did not really slow down or reverse the brain drain—apparently, only 3% plan to return to Russia in the coming months. This trend, in addition to a declining population and one of the world’s largest number of emigrants, will most likely lead to a further deterioration of human capital in Russian organizations, which will undoubtedly cause a loss of the country’s competitiveness and a decrease in standards of living, along with other short- and long-term consequences.  

Coming back to my original point: Russia’s loss can be the collective West’s gain, and our governments can play a significant role here by formulating, developing, and implementing policies that facilitate efforts aimed at attracting top Russian talent.

One of the first initiatives in this direction was a recent plan by the Biden administration to cut immigration red tape by eliminating the need for Russians with advanced STEM degrees to get an employer to sponsor their visa, which would allow U.S. organizations to attract and retain Russian STEM experts in a much more efficient manner. It goes without saying, of course, that these potential immigrants should be well-vetted and deemed eligible from a national security standpoint. Another plan—that the UK called “Researchers Under Risk”—first aimed at Ukrainian researchers will now include Russian scientists as well. Similar initiatives directed at Russian scientists, engineers, IT professionals, and other valuable talent should be implemented by other governments, since steps like these will not only undercut Russia’s innovative potential in the long run and diminish its appetite for aggressive behaviors now and in the future, but will also benefit societies and organizations of those countries that open their doors to freedom-seeking Russian professionals.

Vlad Vaiman is Professor and an Associate Dean at the School of Management of California Lutheran University and a visiting professor at several premier universities around the world.