Under the Stress of Development, Brazil Re-thinks Immigration

Petar Rusev, a member of the 1920s Bulgarian communist party, transformed himself and his name when he arrived in Brazil in the 1930s after fleeing political persecution. Petar became Pedro, Rusev became Rousseff, and the Bulgarian emigré started what would eventually turn out to be a successful career as a lawyer and entrepreneur. The newly made Bulgarian-turned-Brazilian met a schoolteacher from Minas Gerais and by 1947 their daughter, Dilma, was born. Dilma Rousseff, the current President of Brazil, is this immigrant’s daughter.

Brazil has a tradition of welcoming immigrants of Mr. Rusev’s sort. Since gaining independence in 1822, Brazil, much like the US, has played host to immigrants from Europe, Japan and Africa. In the 1970s it opened its arms to a throng of Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian political refugees.

Now though, in the wake of recent growth (in 2010 GDP struck 7.5%), Brazil is itching for professional talent from beyond its borders. And immigration and its lively history is not cutting it.

Reuters reports that Brazil lacks an estimated 20,000 engineers per year to keep up with its infrastructure projects. The shortage of talent is reportedly one of the reasons why Vale, a mining behemoth, has created an ambitious training program for new engineers. The mining company’s hiccup has also slowed down Foxconn’s $12bn USD investment to jump-start manufacturing iPads in Brazil.

According to Reuters, Ricardo Paes de Barros, a strategist for President Rousseff’s office, said that proposals are in the mix to attract foreign professionals and lift the proportion of professionals from abroad up to a goal of 3% from the current 0.3%.

The problem that anxious Brazil and its eager guests face is time. Time is of the essence, especially in sectors like oil & gas, where demands are immediate. To secure work in Brazil companies must justify the absence of equivalent talent in Brazil. Additionally, the Brazilian Ministry of Work sets hiring quotas, which ensure that for every foreigner hired, two Brazilians must be hired. It is by many accounts a byzantine web of bureaucracy, and even though navigating it is possible, it takes time.

Luiz Fernando Alouche, an immigration lawyer with the Almeida Advogados firm in Sao Paulo told Reuters, “hiring a foreigner in Brazil is complicated. It takes a lot of bureaucracy, time and uncertainty regarding whether it will be granted.”

It seems that there are two fronts where Brazil has to hurry. One is the matter of its bureaucratic jungle gym. Foreign professionals could very well be attracted to the country’s economic buoyancy and promise, but until Brazil relaxes its bureaucracy, the best will be scared away over the high potential loss of time.

Another is the matter of education policy, which arguably helped contribute to Brazil’s talent problem in the first place. Rousseff’s Science without Borders project, which was designed to send 100,000 Brazilians to study abroad at some of the world’s best universities, shows that the thinking about Brazil’s talent squeeze is there. The scale and the timing, however, might not be.

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