Will Overstock.com Become Under-Stocked?
Friday, December 14, 2012
When Overstock.com launched 12 years ago, it consisted of 18 people sitting around a conference-room table.
Today, the popular discount online retailer boasts more than 1,300 employees. While Overstock.com cannot match competitor Amazon with respect to the breadth of products offered, the company has discreetly carved out a distinct niche for itself by offering high-quality products at low prices. Overstock.com also maintains a loyal customer base through inexpensive shipping costs and strong customer service.
Behind the scenes, however, lies another reason for the web retailer’s success: high-skilled immigrants.
In a recent interview, the president of Overstock.com, Jonathan Johnson, discusses how educated foreign nationals have been an invaluable component of his company’s success (http://finance.yahoo.com/news/business-leader-view-why-america-145708321.html). Johnson notes that a vital key to Overstock.com’s growth is visa-holding immigrants who helped build Overstock.com’s system architecture. In fact, he estimates that 7 to 15 percent of his workforce are immigrants or foreign-born Americans. Those nearly 200 individuals were integral to the retailer’s growth, allowing it to hire more than 1,000 American workers.
As a member of the Partnership for a New American Economy (http://www.renewoureconomy.org/about), Johnson is one of many affiliated corporate executives who support immigration reform. Following the recent presidential election, the issue has taken on greater urgency with politicians on both sides of the aisle. And what tops Johnson’s wish list for revamping the current system? He fervently backs changes that would make it easier for those studying in American colleges and universities to stay here. Johnson sums up the issue for his company by noting:
“At Overstock, we’re always looking for more software developers and computer scientists. We’re looking for more mathematicians and statisticians, and a lot of times we find great candidates who are here legally on student visas but when they finish their bachelor’s or master’s or PhD degrees have a very difficult time getting work visas. Rather than help build companies like ours, they are forced to go back to their home countries where not only are they not building our companies in the US, they’re creating enemies abroad.”
He adds that in general, it’s difficult to find good technologists, mathematicians and statisticians. Such individuals play a crucial role in making companies like Overstock.com responsive and competitive. Quite frequently, those positions can only be filled by immigrants.
Beyond their high education and skills, Johnson also identifies another important and beneficial trait of immigrants to America: their entrepreneurial drive. Anyone who gives up everything they have to come to the United States will work tirelessly to succeed in establishing a business, and such a business will invariably employ native-born Americans as well. In addition, this work ethic and commitment to education is one that immigrants usually pass on to their children.
Johnson laments that his company has lost valuable employees because the current immigration process is often so protracted that visas have run out before workers could obtain a green card. Unless concrete efforts to reform the present system succeed, companies like Overstock.com that can’t fill jobs will not be able to fill customers’ orders.
It is a prospect no competitive business should need to contemplate, nor one that should be allowed to hinder the American economy.