Education and Skills

Talent is worldwide. Opportunity is not. How can we redistribute it?

Students from low-income backgrounds study in an e-classroom at a government-run school in Ahmedabad, India.

Students from low-income backgrounds study in an e-classroom at a government-run school in Ahmedabad, India. Image: REUTERS/Amit Dave

Igor Tulchinsky
Founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, WorldQuant
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Talent – for math, science, music, sports, finance, you name it – is evenly distributed around the world, even at its most rarefied levels. Opportunity, however, is not. This leaves a significant space to engage underutilized talent if we can make opportunity portable and match it with talent in ways that are less random.

I’ve experienced this in my own life. In the 1970s, my family left the Soviet Union for the US. The Soviet schools I attended were quite good (and Russian schools still are, particularly in math and science), but opportunities were rare, particularly for the kind of computer science and finance that I was able to pursue in America.

I believe that today, for the first time in human history, technology can give us the tools to effectively level opportunity around the globe and unleash a world of talent. Despite the opportunities opened up by these tools and by mobile technology, deployment has not occurred evenly around the world.

The complex mix of factors that defines opportunity is not easily broken down and optimized. Take one proxy of opportunity, economic mobility – the ability of an individual or group to rise up the economic ladder. A recent World Bank report covering 148 countries noted that while gender gaps have been closing, particularly in high-income countries, mobility has stalled for the past 30 years, with the worst rates in the developing world, notably in densely populated south Asia and Africa. The World Bank lays out a complex explanation for this that stresses educational shortfalls and the persistence of underperformance over generations. In other words, mobility through education is particularly difficult if your parents and grandparents were unable to spend much time in school themselves.

Changes in the UN's human development indices over time Image: Human Development Report Office

While the most developed economies benefit from both superior educational institutions and abundant economic opportunity, much of the rest of the world has one or the other, or, too often, neither. The good news is that the overall trend seems to be improving globally, according to the United Nations’ human development indices: In 2018, out of 189 countries, the UN categorized 59 in the very high development group and 38 in the lowest group. In 2010, those figures were 46 and 49, respectively. This is significant progress, though hardly rapid. But it is fragile progress, vulnerable to everything from political and economic instability to climate change.

The UN measures three dimensions in its human development indices: health (or life expectancy), standard of living (or gross national product) and education (roughly, average years of education). Norway, the UN’s top-ranked nation, boasted a mean of 12.6 years of schooling in 2017. Russia, which ranked 49 on the overall index, was only a bit lower at 12 years, while Nigeria, ranked 157, had a mean that was nearly 50% lower: 6.2 years. Generally, the 47 least developed nations had the lowest rates of education and the highest rates of fertility.

On top of that, consider a measure of economic freedom compiled by the Heritage Foundation. The Washington think tank’s index consists of 180 countries and has increased for six straight years, but Heritage describes the overall world economy as only moderately free. Though some 96 countries are considered free, mostly free or moderately free, 84 are mostly unfree or repressed. The bottom line: The economies rated free or mostly free enjoy incomes twice that of the remaining countries.

All of this illustrates the challenges facing billions of young people. The other side of this equation, however, is ripe with potential because the amount of talent is growing exponentially with the world’s population. Think of time not simply as a chronological measure but in terms of the number of human lives: UN population statistics tell us that it took roughly 200,000 years to reach a billion people on earth, in 1804; 123 years to get the next billion; 33 years for the third billion; and 14 years to reach the fourth, in 1974. Today there are roughly 7.7 billion people.

These growing talent pools, if properly trained, will continue to seek opportunities to flourish and put their abilities to work. One metric for an economy that contains a diversity of inventive talents is the mix of people who are granted patents. In the US, the number of patents has been rising steadily for decades, but growing even faster are the number and percentage of US patents granted to foreign residents. In 1950, the US Patent and Trademark Office granted 43,039 patents, with about 10% going to foreign residents. In 2015, some 298,407 patents were granted, 57% of them to foreign residents. National Science Foundation data suggests a similar pattern with US research doctorates: science and technology doctorates rose an average 3.3% a year from 1957 to 2016, when foreign visa holders received 27% of them, up 39% since 2006.

Those are powerful statistics, but they measure only individuals who already are educated and can afford to travel to the US and pay to enter American academic institutions and win jobs at US companies or research centers. That’s just a sliver of the talent we know exists. It is time we harness those untapped and growing pools of talent by making education and opportunity more easily accessible.

Simply placing the internet in regions that previously never had access is not enough. Programs and platforms must be created that bring resources and specific opportunities directly to individuals around the world.

At WorldQuant, we build platforms that enable us to leverage talent in areas we would never have previously reached. Separate from the business, I started WorldQuant University, a nonprofit organization, which offers students around the world an online master’s program in financial engineering as well as a module in which they can learn about data science. WQU is tuition-free, enabling those with the interest and talent, but perhaps not the opportunity, to expand their skills in areas that are in high demand today.

But the organizations that strive to connect talent to opportunity can’t do it alone. Behind all of this is a compelling argument for the benefits – indeed, the necessity – of globalizing opportunity. To meet the complex challenges that confront mankind, we need every talented soul we can find – every Mozart, every Einstein – and we need a lot of them.

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