A skilled migration policy for Europe? Issues and problems

Demonstration for the human rights of the Libyan Refugees in Hamburg (June 2013)
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Demonstration for the human rights of the Libyan Refugees in Hamburg (June 2013)


by James Wickham

At the Lisbon Council in 2000 the leaders of the European Union gave themselves the dramatic objective of creating the ‘world’s most competitive knowledge-based economy’. Today one sign of the failure of that ambition is the extent to which young European researchers are now in American universities, research institutes and firms.  From this perspective, Europe does not have an immigration problem, it has an emigration problem. 

In this brief paper I outline some of the new forms of skilled mobility and new reasons why people migrate. In particular I ask whether it is possible to design a European policy for skilled migration that also contributes towards social equity and social cohesion.

New patterns of mobility and migration

Traditional discussions of migration focus on movements of people move from one country of permanent residence to another.  While migration was never that simple, now it has become much more complicated.

Firstly, the boundary line between migration and simply travelling has become blurred, and this is especially the case for many in skilled occupations. Some occupations and some industries require extensive work-related travel, often across national borders.  For example, a study of the Irish software industry has shown how extensive air travel is part of the job description of many managers and professionals, enabling small Irish-owned firms to be ‘born global’ and reach international markets immediately (Wickham and Vecchi, 2008).  There are executives who commute between different subsidiaries, often spending time in an apartment rented by the company; some have ‘homes’ in different countries.  In the same industry project work means that Irish engineers will spend at least several weeks working on the client’s site in a city such as London or Frankfurt. In jobs as different as financial management and university teaching, a period of several months in another country is  important to a successful career.

Secondly, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world a growing number of occupations seem to involve trans-national labour markets. Whereas the traditional management career involved moving upwards within the national hierarchy of the same company, now it involves movement both between employers and between countries. Such careers are found not just in many areas of management, but crucially in areas such as NGOs, scientific research and third level education.

Thirdly, young migrants may leave less developed countries for the centres of scientific or managerial innovation, but later return to their home country.  They often utilise ethnic networks to mobilise capital and to disseminate technological and organisational knowledge.  Thus the origins of the indigenous software industries in countries as different as Ireland and China lie partly in emigrants returning from the USA.  Such ‘sea turtles’ (as they are named in China) have ensured that ‘brain circulation’ has often replaced simple ‘brain drain’.  Some such movements also seem to create further movements, with a steady flow of researchers, managers and entrepreneurs moving back and forth between Asia and the USA.

Cosmopolitan service class

These trends contribute towards a growing cosmopolitanism of what sociologists often term the ‘service class’, crudely people in professional and managerial occupations.  In the UK for example those in service class occupations are disproportionately likely to have been born outside the UK, with the proportion especially high in London.  This is not simply a question of skilled immigration, since these new arrivals – unlike less skilled immigrants - are also disproportionately like to leave again.  Furthermore, just as skilled immigrants are arriving, so ‘natives’ with high skills are leaving, again often to return again later.

Ireland is a dramatic example of this tendency.  Chart 1 shows that in 2002 about 16% of all those with only primary education had lived outside the country, either because they were immigrants or because they had emigrated and since returned. By contrast, of those with at least a graduate qualification, the proportion was over 43%.

Chart 1 Education and experience of living abroad, Ireland 2002
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Height of each bar indicates percentage of each educational group ever lived abroad.
Source:  Census of Ireland 2002 (micro-data)

This trend is by no means identical across countries.  Chart 2 uses an OECD analysis of national census results to show the proportion of those with foreign birthplaces in the different educational groups.  Over 15% of graduates in both the UK and (especially) Ireland were born abroad.  By contrast, in France and (especially) Germany the service class is significantly more ‘national’ in origin. 

Chart 2 Foreign-born as percentage of each educational category
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Source:  Derived from Dumont and Lemaitre (2005), Table A4.

New motivations, new policies

Discussion of skilled migration usually assumes that such migrants are driven by economic considerations. There is however a growing literature which suggests that other motivations are often more important.

Today many skilled people from relatively rich countries migrate for reasons as diverse as political and cultural discomfort (e.g. many young Poles in the early 21st century) to the simple desire to have fun. Such lifestyle migration is hardly however the prerogative of the feckless young - nor indeed, of sybaritic older Northern Europeans heading South for retirement.  Richard Florida has argued that the ‘creative class’ (roughly the professional and managerial service class) now moves to areas which can offer an attractive life style. Because the creative class values creativity and diversity, its members move to places where these exist. Once there, they then create jobs.  The policy consequence is clear:
‘The trick for cities, then, is to figure out how to make this mobile talent want to come – and ideally stay.’ (Florida, 2005: 16).

Clearly skilled migration policy involves a lot more than work permits and tax rates. It is useful to distinguish between ‘hard’ policies which are clearly defined and targeted exclusively at migrants, and ‘soft’ policies which address the society as a whole even though they turn out to be important for migrants.

A necessary but not sufficient condition for attracting skilled immigrants is easy access to the labour market.  The proposed EU ‘Blue Card’ would standardise entry procedures and even more importantly ensure that skilled immigrants entered a common European labour market.  However, the name is in fact a misnomer.  Compared to the US Green Card the proposed Blue Card is restrictive, since it would not give the right to permanent residency.

A country’s ability to attract and retain skilled migrants depends on the openness of its skilled labour markets.  If firms and organisations rely on internal promotion for their skilled staff, then they will not consider recruiting immigrants.  German firms for example have been shown to be significantly less likely to recruit foreign managers than UK firms (Winkelman, 2002). If in addition a career in such organisations means a long and uncertain wait in temporary contracts before possibly gaining a permanent post, then qualified people will seek more open labour markets. 

This rigidity is the main reason for the mass emigration of French, Italian and German young academics today.
Some skilled migrants appear to choose their destination in terms of the quality of life that a city offers; for many this determines whether they stay.  Here soft policies are decisive.  Increasingly European city governments are aware that their economic success requires skilled immigrants.  This then is a further reason for policies – such as effective public transport – that make a difference to the quality of urban life for all citizens.

National attitudes to ethnic diversity might seem far removed from the normal concerns of skilled migration policy.  The German Green Card scheme for non-EU IT specialists is widely held to have failed because of Germany’s perceived hostility to immigrants. By contrast, the Scottish Executive ‘Fresh Talent’ policy proudly announces to potential immigrants that:
"Scotland is a multicultural society…In 2001, it was reported that 2% pf Scotland’s population was from a non-white, minority ethnic group."

As cultural diversity becomes part of the national brand it is managed and sold to potential migrants. Cultural diversity shifts from a ‘soft’ and contextual issue to a crucial component of ‘hard’ and explicitly targeted policy. 

Conclusion: migrants and policies

Effective policy depends on specifying what sort of migrants a country wishes to attract.  The term ‘skilled migrant’ covers many different groups. Classifying in terms of income would separate the highly paid ‘super-stars’ from the merely well heeled ‘experts’. Intended length of stay would separate short term ‘visitors’ from long term ‘settlers’ (although individuals may move between categories over time). For example, in Dubai most high skill immigrants are ‘visitors’; the UK clearly recruits both ‘visitors’ and ‘settlers’.  The UK debate over the taxation of ‘non-doms’ (earners not domiciled in the UK) is essentially about ‘super stars’, especially in the City of London.  Most of these are at least potentially ‘settlers’, although the debate itself highlights that settlement is not necessarily permanent.

If migration policy focuses on ‘super stars’, it will tend to make the distribution of income more unequal.  It will exacerbate trends towards ‘winner take all’ labour markets in which a few very well remunerated stars co-exist with an ever larger number of badly paid and insecure jobs.  A focus on ‘visitors’ will also prioritise short term financial rewards; it will assume that migrants do not intend to have a career within the host society and are disinterested in the broader quality of life.
By contrast, a focus on ‘settlers’ would not only make skilled labour markets more open to immigrants, it would ensure that skilled ‘natives’ were less likely to be pushed into emigration.   Equally, for many ‘expert’ migrants what matters is the cultural atmosphere and social infrastructure of a country and especially of a city.  Furthermore, there is also evidence that some young professionals actually prefer ‘European’ societies because of their social cohesion and social welfare, in explicit contrast to the hyper-individualism of the USA (American healthcare is frequently cited here).  A policy that welcomes skilled migrants in this way will however only be politically acceptable if it is coupled with responsible restraints on unskilled immigration.

Finally, even if many migrants may leave again, it is clear that treating them as ‘visitors’ ensures that they are less likely to come in the first place.  Here the contrast between US and European attitudes to skilled immigrants is dramatic. American policy treats visitors as potential settlers, in particular by making citizenship relatively accessible.  It thus makes the society appear generally more welcoming. If Europe is to attract and retain skilled migrants, it cannot treat them as Gastarbeiter.


  • Dumont, Jean-Christophe and Georges Lemaitre (2005).  'Counting immigrants and expatriates in OECD countries: A new perspective'. Paris: OECD
  • Florida, Richard (2005). The Flight of the Creative Class: The new global competition for talent. NY: HarperCollins.
  • Wickham, James and Alessandra Vecchi (2008).  'Local firms and global reach: Business air travel and the Irish software cluster.’ European Planning Studies 16.5: 693-710.
  • Winkelman, Rainer (2002). ‘Why do firms recruit internationally? Results from the IZA international employer survey 2000’ in OECD, International Mobility of the Highly Skilled, Paris; OECD, pp. 133-150.

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James Wickham is the Director of the ERC and Jean Monnet Professor of European Labour Market Studies in the Department of Sociology at Trinity College Dublin.