cle knowledge jobs could be a magnet for international talent

Partner Content

When entrepreneur Ashish Mehta arrived in Cleveland ten years ago, he was connected and welcomed to his new base of operations by a loosely associated if diligent network of support services.

Mehta, CEO of PatientClick Inc., a clinical documentation management company with an office downtown, worked early on with groups like Team NEO, Greater Cleveland Partnership and the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network (MAGNET). These entities navigated the India-born businessman and his brother/business partner Vishal through Cleveland's entrepreneurial ecosystem, finding him rent subsidized office space and introducing him to hospital administrators and decision makers interested in his web-based electronic medical records software.  
<span class="content-image-text">Ashish Mehta, CEO of PatientClick Inc</span>Ashish Mehta, CEO of PatientClick Inc
"The beauty of Cleveland is building these relationships that can last for a decade," says Mehta, 36, who splits his time between Middleburg Heights and San Diego. "When I travel for business, I'm always telling people that Cleveland isn't what they see or hear on the news."

Nonprofit talent attractors Global Cleveland and Team NEO act as resources for the drawing and management of the type of immigrant aptitude adept at building innovative new companies and filling high-tech, high-skilled jobs. Those studying or directly involved with the process believe multiculturalism can give the city a competitive edge by filling burgeoning fields when the native labor supply can't keep up. 

"The advantage of immigrant talent is you're getting people wanting to start a new life,"  says Bernadine van Kessel, Team NEO's director of international business attraction. "Cleveland and Northeast Ohio can be strategic locations for them."

An educated foundation

Cleveland may not have quantity when it comes to foreign-born citizenry, but those that do reside here are highly educated, stated a recently released report from Cleveland State University's Center for Population Dynamics.    

Bad news first: The city ranks 44th out of the nation's largest 50 metros in immigrant population. Through a wider lens, immigrants comprise only about five percent (114,000) of the population of Cuyahoga, Lorain, Lake, Geauga and Medina counties, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

On the sunnier side, Cleveland boasts the country's seventh largest concentration of college-educated internationals at 40 percent. In addition, over 21 percent of the region's foreign-born residents have graduate or professional degrees, ranking Cleveland fifth in the nation ahead of Boston, Buffalo and Washington, D.C.

Cleveland's knowledge-driven "eds and meds" sector, which stands 11th nationwide in total employment, is a major factor in luring high-skilled immigrants to the North Coast, says Richey Piiparinen, director of CSU's population center.

"The Rust Belt is not usually seen as a place for immigrants," says Piiparinen. "What's missing (in that assessment) is the skill level of our immigrant population. When you look closely you see a missing piece of the puzzle."

The "quality over quantity" narrative will be an important data point in strategizing Cleveland's economic development moving forward, Piiparinen says. The region's critical mass of health services can serve as an international talent magnet, further deepening the regional knowledge base and creating successive waves of innovation and job growth.

As immigrants have high representation in occupations that require an advanced degree, especially physicians and medical researchers, it would be advantageous for Cleveland to gain a larger share of high-skilled foreign-born, notes Piiparinen. 

The Association of American Medical Colleges predicts a shortage of 130,600 physicians in the United States by 2025, a meaningful projection considering Cleveland's steadily growing and globalizing healthcare industry, the researcher adds. These educated immigrants can complement native-born workers by flowing into rapidly developing fields where the native labor supply can't sustain itself. Migration can also deepen the region's knowledge pool with skills that are not readily accessible locally due to the dynamics of demand over supply.

"We have a healthcare sector that will continue to bring in patients from all over the world," says Piiparinen. "The industry demands skilled talent, and that demand is coming from outside the country's borders."

Bridging the talent gap

Plugging the holes in Cleveland's knowledge job market requires outreach, something Global Cleveland is attempting on a large scale. The economic development organization  launched in 2011 to support a strategic, mass market approach to talent attraction that includes a public embrace of immigrants and refugees.

An expanded website promoting the area's assets serves as an important instrument for this ambitious undertaking, says Joy Roller, Global Cleveland president.

"A big problem is people don't know how great Cleveland is," Roller says.

The organization's web portal spreads Cleveland's good news through job- and neighborhood-finding tools. Users can peruse pages in nearly 51 different languages to learn about Northeast Ohio's 117 ethnic communities and 70,000 open jobs, over 3,500 of which are in IT. The jobs section of the site lets users connect to Ohio Means Jobs to search for employment, sign up for email job alerts, or uncover networking opportunities.

Global Cleveland is now aiming to embed its portal on websites of local businesses to better reach skillful, job-seeking immigrants. Meanwhile, the nonprofit has engaged with Lubrizol, Medical Mutual, Huntington Bank and Forest City for seminars on how local corporations can dip into the international talent stream.

Claiming the process can be costly and time-consuming, some companies are reluctant to sponsor immigrants for a visa application or work permit, Roller maintains. This year, Global Cleveland will launch a global certification program to identify and celebrate those employers who are bringing in capable overseas workers.

"The challenge is getting employers to discuss how (hiring internationally) is in their best interest," says Roller. "Just a general understanding of how this helps us connect Cleveland globally." 

One possible talent attraction template for Cleveland is St. Louis, Roller notes. The nonprofit director visited the bustling Missouri metro in early January, and came away impressed by its hard-charging integration of regional economic development with welcoming brainy newcomers from outside the country. The St. Louis International Institute, for example, provides a comprehensive array of adjustment services that reaches more than 7,500 immigrants and refugees while creating recertification pathways for accomplished foreign-born to get them back into the same professions, high-tech and otherwise, they had back home.

Global Cleveland officials are heartened by recent passage of an Ohio law making the attraction and retention of international students a priority. The initiative, called the Ohio Global Reach to Engage Academic Talent, or Ohio G.R.E.A.T. , is a positive sign for those who believe teamwork is needed to boost the state's talent coffers through non-native means.

"We need to continue to work across silos and economic development organizations so we're all working together," says Roller.

High-skilled pay the bills

Team NEO is one such entity tasked with marketing Northeast Ohio to the rest of the country and the world. The organization works closely with major metro and other city and county economic development organizations as well as JobsOhio to attract foreign companies. This mission is met by connecting these budding businesses to financing programs, tax credits, workforce training and other resources needed to help a company grow.
<span class="content-image-text">Bernadine van Kessel of Team NEO</span>Bernadine van Kessel of Team NEO
Director van Kessel has spent the last four years working on the global business attraction side, be it strengthening an existing company's supply chain or convincing an international corporation to open an office in the area. Foreign firms comprise about 30 percent of the companies Team NEO attracts, in industries including polymers and medical devices.

Most companies simply want skilled workers, no matter their native land, says van Kessel. However, the foreign-born community can be leveraged in ways the U.S.-born populace cannot. Immigrants arrive at a job with language skills and overseas connections, essentially serving as ambassadors for the region.

For instance, a Dutch business presence in Greater Cleveland has risen noticeably in high-tech fields like advanced manufacturing, notes van Kessel. Philips Medical Systems, a healthcare and consumer lifestyle company, has 1,000 employees here, while Univar and AkzoNobel also have Cleveland offices.

A lively ethnic community has flowered alongside these businesses, including a Dutch-language school that teaches a mix of Dutch expatriate and Dutch-American children. This kind of active enclave is something the Netherlands-born van Kessel can point to when selling foreign companies on Cleveland, while word from those who moved here travels thousands of miles to friends and family looking to relocate.

The fight Team NEO and other Cleveland business advocates face is placing the city top-mind for that software engineer or biomed researcher from Tokyo or Madrid, says Van Kessel.

"These people think of the U.S. as big cities or places like Florida or Las Vegas," she says. "Cleveland is less expensive and near the big business hubs. Companies can set up shop here and cover as much of the market as they want."

Sustaining these links is critical, particularly when considering the power Cleveland's diversification can have in the knowledge economy. While the city hasn't experienced a population boom, Cleveland's metro income sustained the fifth biggest increase in the nation from 2009 to 2012, according to the CSU report. These figures coincide with the region's parallel rise in immigrants with an advanced degree -- a nearly 3 percent growth from 2009 to 2013.

Roller of Global Cleveland doesn't expect this trend to decelerate, meaning Cleveland must trumpet its assets in tune with those tech-centric employers actively interested in making their own immigration push. "Without new ideas and new people we'll stagnate and go backward," says Roller. "We have to make the effort.

Douglas J. Guth
Douglas J. Guth

About the Author: Douglas J. Guth

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to being senior contributing editor at FreshWater, his work has been published by Crain’s Cleveland Business, Ideastream, and Middle Market Growth. At FreshWater, he contributes regularly to the news and features departments, as well as works on regular sponsored series features.