The plug in the dike comes on May 24. For years it seemed it wouldn't come at all.
In the wake of decades of population and employment erosion, next week marks the formal launch of the International Welcome Center on Public Square. It's championed as a sort of recruiting department spawned by Global Cleveland, the newly formed organization that is more than a decade in the planning.
The group hopes to stem the tide of Cleveland's outward migration, while courting newcomers who can fill vacant jobs — or create new ones for thousands of unemployed locals.
At the heart of Global Cleveland's courtship is a glut of more than 20,000 jobs currently available in the region, a figure the group cites using the state-run employment website ohiomeansjobs.com.
"The principal goal is to attract population to Cleveland," says Baiju Shah, Global Cleveland's recently appointed chairman. "We want to attract 200,000 people over 20 years."
But as Global Cleveland prepares to celebrate its launch next week — with a public party at City Hall, followed by a community "summit" at Cleveland State University — questions exist whether the group's model for job stimulation overlooks the countless unemployed who already live here. Instead of lifting locals out of their malaise, the group is dedicated at least in part to ushering in foreign guest workers on a little-known visa called the H-1B. Critics say such workers often are sought by employers at lower wages, and in some regions have taken jobs from their American counterparts.
In the land where good jobs go to die, more competition is on the way.
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The idea that has grown into Global Cleveland — often referred to in the recent past as the "Immigration Welcome Center" — has been incubating for years. But initially it was just a concept shared among a handful of lawyers and business and civic leaders.
One of those early players was Cleveland attorney Richard Herman, who has been extraordinary in his commitment to helping immigrants make Cleveland home. He has provided immigration counsel to the Cavaliers and Browns, among other NFL franchises, and his life's work has been honored by former Governor Bob Taft and former mayors Jane Campbell and Michael White.
"Whatever we have been doing for the last 40 years is not working," says Herman. "We need to change ourselves to the immigrant mindset: be more innovative, family-centric, self-reliant, pro-education. In the past, if an immigrant couldn't find a job, they made one." Indeed, such tales of bootstrap determination create the narrative arc of Cleveland's own history.
Herman has also played a key role in the emergence of Global Cleveland. According to several backers who have worked behind the scenes from the start, the group never would have happened "if not for Richard ... the Lionhearted."
But for all the years of debate over how best to bring talent to Cleveland, plans for a Welcome Center came to fruition no earlier than December of last year. The goal was to offer guidance to those considering a new life here, to extend the first roots of a support system that could better connect them to the community — to social groups and churches, to housing and, of course, to employment.
More specifically, the group aimed to recruit highly skilled talent to town by working closely with the region's ethnic communities, developing internship programs, and marketing the city to minority populations elsewhere.
In early April, Global Cleveland revealed that it had found a home on the ground floor of the BP Building. Even more important: It had secured a handful of influential backers, providing the juice that well-meaning community servants alone could not. Huntington Bank stepped forward with $500,000, along with smaller but substantial gifts from Forest City Enterprises, the Cleveland Foundation, the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, and others.
The news was feted with a press conference at Global Cleveland's future headquarters, attended by a civic all-star team: Mayor Frank Jackson, County Executive Ed FitzGerald, City Council President Martin Sweeney, and Forest City boss Albert Ratner among them. Looking on were dozens of behind-the-scenes players who helped usher the program into existence.
"Maybe English isn't the first language of the people coming here, but after today, 'Cleveland' will be," said Councilman Joe Cimperman, the son of a Slovenian immigrant.
Among the cavalcade of speakers, FitzGerald was the lone voice to acknowledge the common controversy that accompanies efforts to court immigrants in other regions, mostly involving the perceived threat to the resident workforce. For years, opposition to Global Cleveland from City Hall and minority groups had centered on the argument that the region should take care of its own before casting an international net.
FitzGerald conceded that the course of Global Cleveland is riddled with uncertainty, but that pursuing immigrants is the "morally" right thing to do. (FitzGerald and Mayor Jackson did not respond to interview requests for this story.)
"The area had to make a decision as to which stream it was going to follow," FitzGerald said.
Where that current will take us, it's too early to tell.
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Richard Herman devotes his days to helping immigrants secure H-1B visas. He is also the author of a book on the subject: Immigrant, Inc., which he co-wrote with veteran Plain Dealer reporter Robert L. Smith. It's a vocal treatise urging the federal government to unlock the gates and allow into the U.S. higher numbers of "entrepreneurial immigrants," holders of H-1Bs and similar visas, who are more likely than native-born Americans, they claim, to earn an advanced degree, invent something, and even be awarded U.S. patents.
"This is what this region needs: more access to global markets, more international capital, more international entrepreneurs," says Herman.
Together, Herman and Smith have also utilized the region's most influential media, The Plain Dealer, to publish immigrant success stories and editorials that push hard for immigrants with big ideas to make Greater Cleveland home. Without question, immigrants were the manpower and energy that took Cleveland to its post-WWII manufacturing glory, where a high school diploma and hard work earned one a good paycheck, a nice house, and a family. In modern Cleveland, such tales are soaked in the quaintness of days long gone.
But there are new immigrant success stories emerging, as Herman and Smith have pointed out in The PD. One of them is India native Asis Benarjie, who started Ovation Polymers in Medina. The company manufactures resin pellets used to make water bottles and food containers, and has roughly 40 employees working three shifts.
Other successes can be found throughout the region — and especially in its numerous ethnic enclaves, where small, typically homespun businesses are flourishing like they haven't in years.
Yet to many American information technology professionals and their unions, the label "entrepreneurial immigrants" is less about multiplying jobs and more about taking jobs away. In the Pacific Northwest, many major corporations have relied heavily on H-1B labor for decades, with results that are met with something short of universal acclaim.
WashTech, a Seattle-based IT union, advocates strongly against H-1B visas, which allow professional immigrants of advanced skill to work in America for up to six years. The union claims that thousands of H-1Bs brought in by Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, and other major corporations during the last 20 years have displaced American IT workers and other skilled professionals while degrading the wages and benefits of those with jobs.
After 9/11, the federal government lowered the number of H-1Bs allowed to enter the country each year from 200,000 to 85,000. Today, some 600,000 H-1B foreign guest workers are employed in the U.S., according to WashTech.
Herman and Smith cite the prosperity of top tech companies as evidence that the federal government should ease H-1B visa restrictions. "The companies founded by immigrants stand as icons of the era: Google, Intel, Yahoo, Hotmail, Sun Microsystems, YouTube and eBay," they say on their website, immigrantinc.com.
Global Cleveland chairman Baiju Shah distances Herman from the group's current mission. Though Herman is listed as being on the executive committee, Shah says he has not been a part of the actual funding and policy process. The Global Cleveland website, however, also lists Herman and his downtown law firm on its board of directors, which Shah directs.
Toward the end of a cordial phone interview conducted recently with Herman, the attorney was asked how many H-1Bs he processes each year and whether he expects that figure to rise significantly now that Global Cleveland is poised to launch.
"No comment," Herman replied before abruptly hanging up.
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The economy of the Pacific Northwest has been greatly influenced by the use of H-1B workers. But in Cleveland — a region graced with precious few tech-related giants by comparison — the effect of an influx of H-1Bs seems less clear.
Among the companies whose names have been first to appear in association with Global Cleveland, none showed interest in discussing the subject for this story.
Columbus-based Huntington Bank declined through a spokesman to answer questions regarding its $500,000 donation to Global Cleveland and whether it expects to locally employ any guest workers holding H-1B visas. The spokesman also declined to address Huntington's past use of H-1Bs. The website myvisajobs.com, a clearinghouse of H-1B totals for states and corporations, reveals the company has petitioned for just 23 such visas over the last decade.
According to an April 5 Plain Dealer article penned by Smith, Huntington plans to move 300 employees into new offices in floors above Global Cleveland in the former BP Building, now known as 200 Public Square.
"It's a multiyear commitment by the bank," Dan Walsh Jr., new president of Huntington's Greater Cleveland operations, told The PD, referring to Huntington's $500,000 gift. "We see this as an economic development engine. We want the whole world to know Cleveland is the place to achieve the American dream."
According to Baiju Shah, Americans will get their shot at that American dream too.
He says Global Cleveland has had to ask The Plain Dealer to stop referring to his group as the "Immigration Welcome Center." Its ultimate mission, he says, is to find the right person, whether American or immigrant, for the right job in Greater Cleveland.
"This is being driven by what the employee is looking for," says Shah, who is also president of the area recruiting firm BioEnterprise. "There's a broad mix of openings — and the challenge is to find enough of these [skilled workers] in the local community. Global Cleveland's greatest opportunity is to recruit back individuals who have a connection to Cleveland — such as former residents of the region or alumni of regional institutions — by matching them to job opportunities. The easiest opportunity is to hire locally — if the job fits the individual."
But as recently as Global Cleveland's first pep rally in April, references to attracting U.S. workers were as nonexistent as voices of opposition in the crowd. During the press conference, Shah led a parade of keynote speakers who took turns extolling the value of welcoming immigrants to Cleveland.
The heads of Huntington Bank and Forest City Enterprises each trotted out a Cleveland employee to the podium to illustrate the value of Global Cleveland's mission. Both guests hailed from foreign lands.
In Scene interviews in recent months with numerous executive committee members and institutional backers, welcoming entrepreneurial immigrants was the recurring theme.
Global Cleveland clearly traces its origins to the quest for finding foreign talent. In its early days, the "Immigrant Welcome Center" was celebrated in a 40-page PowerPoint presentation called "The Blue Print for Talent, Ideas and Innovation," which has made the rounds among area leaders for four years. Among other things, the presentation calls for the removal of federal caps on H-1Bs.
A copy of The Blue Print obtained by Scene does not say who authored it, but interviews with Global Cleveland backers say the plan was written by what is known as the "Core Blueprint People," which includes Richard Herman; Harry Weller, a local venture capitalist; Rafael Favila, an activist from the Latin community; and Alan Schonberg, co-founder of Management Recruiters International and a longtime activist in the Jewish community.
In 2008, Mark Santo, then-director of the Cleveland Council on World Affairs — which created the Global Cleveland program — told The Plain Dealer he wanted to establish Cleveland, like Silicon Valley, as an "H-1B city."
Shah insists that was yesterday.
"The Global Cleveland Initiative that we have convened and I have chaired since last July has always had the broader vision in terms of its focus," he says.
In some cases, Shah says, there are challenges in finding local talent to fill the region's 20,000-plus open positions. Already, Global Cleveland has helped establish a "skilled machinist" program at Cuyahoga Community College. The program's biggest problem, says Shah, is that many applicants are turned away because they fail to pass the pre-screening for enrollment: ninth-grade-level reading, arithmetic, and computer skills.
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A representative from Employment Connection, a job-placement agency run by the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County, says companies should seek workers locally before beating the international bushes.
"We have the talent locally," says the employee, who asked not to be named. "But do we have enough to fill these jobs? Probably not."
Harry Weller, like other Global Cleveland supporters, stresses that some local IT companies have turned away business because they didn't have the talent to do the work. He mentions Brandmuscle, a local marketing company, and the software developer PreEmptive Solutions, which has an office in Greater Cleveland.
"IT companies here were turning business away because they couldn't get the manpower," he says. "The data is available that talented, professional immigrants will start businesses. Maybe not right off the boat, but eventually."
Local unease over the possible influx of immigrant workers so far is difficult to gauge.
Scene contacted several area small-business owners and IT community leaders for this story. None agreed to be quoted on the record, but all of them expressed apprehension at the prospect of courting an immigrant workforce.
According to the director of an influential Ohio-wide IT group, 75,000 IT workers are currently employed in Greater Cleveland — what he calls the state's "greatest concentration" of IT professionals. Any movement to attract H-1Bs could cost some of them their jobs, he says, adding that it will depend on where their employer's heart is.
"Progressive Insurance could say, 'We're now all about the bottom line, so forget hiring the American fresh out of Ohio State and paying him $45,000 a year; we can get a bunch of guys from India, petition for their visa, and pay them $22,000,' which is a lot more money than what they would be getting if they stayed in India," says the director, who spoke with Scene on the condition of anonymity.
Incidentally, Mayfield Heights-based Progressive Insurance — which has no apparent stake in Global Cleveland — refused to speak to Scene about its use of H-1Bs. Rare is the corporation that will go on the record about the subject, but some insight can be found at myvisajobs.com.
According to the site, Progressive — one of Northeast Ohio's largest employers — has hired 1,100 H-1Bs over the last ten years. Cleveland Clinic, the region's largest employer, has hired 1,700 H-1Bs in that span. Case Western Reserve University also uses H-1B workers.
Based on figures culled from myvisajobs.com, roughly 4,000 to 6,000 H-1Bs currently work in Greater Cleveland.
Meanwhile, another large Cleveland employer, KeyBank, has sought in recent years to transfer between 200 and 400 American IT jobs offshore with help from an Indian firm. Ultimately, only about 70 IT jobs were eliminated, though Key has trimmed 1,700 employees from its payroll over the last two years. Rumors persist that more IT jobs will be lost, while Key officials maintain no such decisions have been made.
In Cincinnati, a company called Tata Consultancy Services of India has established a hub in the suburb of Milford. According to WashTech, Tata has a track record of bringing Indian citizens to America, where they are sourced to corporations that don't want to deal with the federal red tape that comes with getting H-1B approvals on their own, or allow their use of H-1Bs to be made public.
According to myvisajobs.com, Tata ranks 20th out of the top 100 American companies that have utilized H-1Bs since 2001. At any given time, Tata has 8,000 such workers on the job in the U.S.; by comparison, the nation's top H-1B employer, Microsoft, has roughly 35,000. (Tata has no connection to Global Cleveland, according to Shah.)
But what makes some IT pros even more nervous about Tata's presence in the Buckeye state is how Ohio has laid out the red carpet to get them here: Tata was lured to Cincinnati in 2007 by an $18 million job-creation tax break.
"What a slap in the face to the American worker," say Les French, director of WashTech. The $18 million could be clawed back if Tata does not meet certain requirements, such as hiring American citizens, according to the Ohio Department of Development.
To those who have been replaced by H-1Bs, a slap in the face has sometimes been followed with a punch to the gut.
"I have heard several people say that [they were replaced by an H-1B worker], especially the older guys in the field," says Troy Davis, head of the Programmers Guild, a Cincinnati IT union. "The most angry are the ones who have been displaced by an H-1B and then trained the foreigner — the H-lB holder — to do their job."
But the Ohio-based IT pros interviewed for this story seem to have accepted immigrant labor as their industry's inescapable reality. (Numerous attempts to reach Cleveland's Programmers Guild were unsuccessful.)
The heart of the problem, according to one director from an Ohio IT group that has an office in the area: Cleveland itself.
"There are Americans who can do the job, but they're in Boston, Austin, San Francisco, Silicon Valley," he says. "Cleveland can't get these guys, because [corporations] can't convince them to come live here."
John Lasker is a freelance writer based in Columbus.