By Marc Resnick

Immigration is a sensitive subject and there are many dimensions to it.  But most people who understand enough of macroergonomics (including most IEs and engineering managers I know) agree that when really smart people come here, even if we give them valuable full time jobs, it is good for the country at large.  As with anything, there are winners and losers in the short term.  But this is one kind of immigration for which there are many more winners than losers and the few losers are only down for a short amount of time, until the smart immigrants create additional new jobs because of their work.  Whether this is true of migrant farmers, landscapers, and nannies I will leave to another debate.  But if we can find a few Sergei Brins and Andy Groves out there, we all win.  But because of the politics, the number of H1-B visas (the ones for tech workers) remains too low to meet the demand of the tech sector.  Even if you think we can convince more American high school students to go to college and major in engineering, in the short term we need to import them.
There is a new effort emerging from some small businesses in the high tech sector to come up with a non-governmental, work around the system, way to get smart people into the US to work.  They can’t afford sponsoring H1-B visas, even the few that are available.  Only the big guns like Microsoft and IBM get them.  These companies would rather the government get its act together, but since that seems less and less likely, they are doing what they have to do.   Here is the basic idea.
The workaround business is called Blueseed.  What the founder, Max Marty, is planning is to buy a large ship (think cruise ship size), turn it into apartments and shared office space, anchor it 12 miles out from Silicon Valley (international waters) and then have a daily ferry that would bring residents to jobs in Silicon Valley.  By going back to their “own country” every night, they don’t need an H1-B visa, they just need a B-1 visa. These are for business visitors and are much easier to get.   There would be a daily hassle of going through immigration and having their papers checked every morning, but that would just add an hour or two to their workday.  Occasionally, they may be denied entry for some technicality, but this should be rare.
There would also be workspace on board so employees could telecommute from the ship or US employees could travel to the ship and they can set up the company on board.  This would require a little more technical infrastructure than just apartments, but with wireless access, cloud computing, and virtual corporate networks getting easier and cheaper, this isn’t just an imaginary wish.  Think of it like riverboat gambling for the high tech industry.
Once the company grows large enough to afford real H1-B visas, they would apply and move permanently and fully to the US.  Or if the US increases the number or ease of applying for H1-Bs, then the ship wouldn’t be needed at all.
The idea of “seasteading” has been around for a long time and has been considered for a variety of different purposes (check out the econlog blog for lots of intelligent examples and the seasteading institute for something comprehensive).  But no one has ever really implemented any of them.  Blueseed is probably a long shot too, but I would love to see what happens if they try.
OK – so finally I get to the IE part.  What happens on the shop floor when workers have a choice between following the company policy or getting the job done.  They find a workaround.  A recent paper in the 2011 HFES Proceedings showed that when an electronic health record system (the hospital version of ERP) doesn’t follow the doctor’s preferred work flow, they find a workaround, even if it means sticking Post-Its to the computer screen.
Rather than hiring illegal immigrants, Max Marty got some of the biggest VCs to pony up millions of dollars to create an innovative way to get around the immigration constraints.  If they had been able to put this same thought and creativity into solving climate change, world hunger, or a real global challenge. The same thing will happen at your company.  If you streamline your equipment, information systems, rules, regs, policies, and procedures so that they fit the shopfloor workflow, you can double your productivity from the streamlining and then double it again when workers can focus their creative juices on their output.