The Highly-Skilled as a 'Renewable Resource'

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The migration of highly-skilled offers new options in making this 'resource' more purposeful, coherent and effective


by Gervais Appave


Let me start somewhat upstream of the topic that is on our agenda: It is a sobering, if unsettling, thought that it is quite possible that the origins of contemporary global mobility - and the policy dilemmas that arise as a consequence of it - lie, not in conscious decisions made by ministers of immigration (or interior or justice as the case may be) and their respective senior officials, but rather in choices made by their colleagues responsible for trade and finance portfolios.

Some 40 years ago the international community made a crucial choice, a choice to embark on the development of a General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which eventually begat (no pun intended) not only the WTO, but also the General Agreement in Trade and Services or GATS.

The point is that it could have gone the other way; the nation states of the world could have decided to go for highly self-contained, enclosed, highly protected economies. They could have decided that economic insularity and tariff barriers were a small price to pay for the retention of strong national identities, social quiescence and harmony, and for a maximum of security within their borders.

Economic Opening

I mentioned that to Jan Karlsson, the former Swedish Minister for Development Cooperation, at a workshop we both attended in Oslo, and he thought for a moment, whistled and said with slightly wicked delight: “Can you imagine all those Norwegians swimming in their vast pools of oil?”

The issue is, in any case, no longer in doubt; to the distress of the alter-mondialistes, the international community chose growth, and first of all economic growth as its overriding objective. This is what governments all over the world accept as a priority. Whether the choice is wise or not (and there is obviously plenty of room for debate here), there follows a chain of consequences: Growth is achieved by increasing productivity, productivity is stimulated through competitiveness, and competitiveness is all about being more efficient in the use of resources than the next country, whether across the border or on the other side of the world.

In his 2005 book The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman developed the idea that the ‘world is flat’ when barriers to trade, innovation and information are levelled. Since we are in Berlin, it may be useful to recall that he identified the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago as the first of the 10 events that would contribute to the flattening of the world. Also included in the list were:

Outsourcing, or allowing anyone with the requisite skills to do any job anywhere; off shoring, to take advantage of delocalization; and the emergence of global supply chains. Friedman correctly pointed out that the removal of barriers would lead to increasing levels of exchange of resources such as goods and services.

Human capital as a resource

What is becoming more and more apparent is that one of these resources is human capital. Although the facilitation of the movement of this resource was and remains (in formal terms) largely excluded from large multilateral commercial negotiations, it features nonetheless more and more prominently in the equations of those seeking to maintain (or more accurately in these post-financial crisis times, restore) levels of growth and productivity.

It needs hardly to be pointed out that in developed countries - and in Europe in particular - this assignment will be all the more difficult because it will have to be undertaken in a demographic context where ageing cohorts of workers retire to be replaced by smaller contingents of young persons.

There are, of course, many types of people on the move, covering categories as diverse as family members seeing reunification, asylum seekers, refugees, and labour migrants – not to mention business visitors and tourists - but there is no group that is as coveted by policymakers as much as highly skilled migrants.

The Highly-Skilled

But who are the “highly skilled”? There is, as you would be aware, no agreed definition. These workers are most frequently categorized through allusion to either their level of educational attainment.

The threshold being generally set at 3 or 4 years of tertiary study following the completion of high school courses; the professional skills they have mastered; or again the salary levels they are able to command – the bidding for recognition tends to start at around €50,000 for a year’s work.

There are, of course, no upper limits. Although the term “highly skilled” is sometimes reserved for the use in relation to talent in science and technology, the term is commonly stretched to cover a wide range of educational or occupational backgrounds, including intra-corporate transferees, business executives, IT specialists, researchers, professional health workers as well as graduate students. This list is obviously not exhaustive.

Why are these people sought after? The reasons are as numerous as they are diverse. One prime rationale is to be found in the emergence of knowledge-based societies requiring professionals “able to access, understand and use knowledge for technological and economic development” (OECD, 2009).

Highly skilled migrants can operate as creators, multipliers and transmitters of knowledge. They are valued for bringing a diversity of viewpoints and cultural enrichment to workplaces that design and produce goods for the global market.

They are also esteemed for their willingness to take risks (including obviously the risk of mobility) and for their entrepreneurial flair and ability. In brief, highly skilled migrants are very much part of what Richard Florida has called the “creative class”, those people who are the drivers of change in contemporary society.

‘Race for talents’

Given such strong demand for their services, it is not surprising that industrialized countries compete strongly to attract them. As is often the case, the United States, Canada and Australia were among the first to adjust their migration management policies and procedures so as to offer incentives to be generally more attractive to the highly skilled, but EU countries are now keen to make up for lost ground, through both corporate and individual effort.
It would, however, be misleading to assume that the ‘race for talent’ is of significance to highly developed countries only. In recent years, several middle income countries such as India, China and Malaysia have begun to advertise their need for highly qualified migrant workers, including their own citizens who have left for study or professional experience abroad.

The idea of attracting back “home-grown, but overseas-nurtured” talent is even incorporated as a major policy objective in the 11th Chinese 5-Year Plan.
In the midst of all that competition, it should not be forgotten that the main players in the game are the migrants themselves. They are the ones who are looking for the destination that offers the greatest benefits to themselves and their families. And they can afford to be very selective. Salary packages and working conditions are obviously important considerations, but they are not the only things that matter.

Ultimately the choice will be influenced by a whole range of economic, social and personal preferences including factors as diverse as political stability, cultural affinities, competence in the host country’s language, schooling arrangements for children, and work opportunities for spouses. There is a clear challenge in putting together the right mix of incentives.

Facts on Migration

As is the case for most migration data, statistics on trends concerning the mobility of the highly skilled are seriously constrained by problems of availability, access and comparability. There is, unfortunately, no international system that records highly skilled migration. And seeking to obtain data on that population is much like looking into a broken mirror: The information is so fractured and disparate that it is hard to get a coherent picture.

Here are some snippets of information from those brave researchers who have tried to make sense out of disparate collections of data. Needless to say, I share them with a certain degree of trepidation:

  • In 2000, an estimated 58.5 million migrants in OECD countries, of whom roughly 37% (21 million) could be described as highly skilled migrants.
  • In the same year among the almost 22 million migrants living in the EU, 22% had tertiary education. Compared to 1990 figures, this share had increased by 7%.
  • Most OECD countries are net beneficiaries of international mobility with inflows exceeding outflows.
  • In absolute terms Germany and the UK are the countries with the larges number of skilled expatriates.
  • Globally the largest numbers of highly educated migrant workers are from Europe, followed by Southern and Eastern Asia.
  • The highest emigration rates (over 40 %) of highly skilled are typically observed in small island states, from the Caribbean (Jamaica, Haiti); the Indian Ocean (Mauritius) and the Pacific (Fiji)
  • A large proportion of highly skilled migration occurs within region. For instance 33% of Western Hemisphere HS migrants move to the US, especially from Canada and Mexico. Similarly most European countries receive a large share of their highly skilled migrants from other regions.
  • The number of foreign students has grown exponentially since the 1980s: 800,000 in 1980, 1.2 million in 1990, 1.9 million in 2000 and 2.7 million in 2004.

The story of ‘the battle for talents’

In broad terms however, it is generally accepted that the global race for talent began in the early 1990s. The traditional countries of origin (US, Canada, Australia) had long been attached to the principle of selective migration but now began to refine their selection instruments so as to be even more attractive to the “best and brightest”.

In succeeding years, both Canada and Australia adjusted their points systems to place greater emphasis on educational and occupational attributes in their selection process.

Countries in Europe followed with a series of carefully calibrated policy experiments which have continued since then, waxing during periods of economic growth and waning during downturns, but never quite abandoned at any given point in time. Points systems (UK, Denmark), employer sponsorships (France), job seeker visas (Denmark), conversion of student visas, financial visas, have all been attempted, modified and evaluated.

In one interesting exercise conducted in 2008, the Danish Government asked for the development of a “Barrier Catalogue” to document perceived obstacles to the hiring of skilled foreign workers in Denmark. The survey identified 21 possible obstacles, including, interestingly enough, the lack of appropriate family-oriented services for newcomers.

One on-going project deserving particular attention is the Swedish Government’s market oriented approach to highly skilled migration: The employer's assessment of the need to recruit foreign labour is the key point when processing residence and work permit applications.

The individual employer has the lead role in this arrangement: He or she determines the need for the recruitment of a worker from abroad and provides the employment offer, which is to be no worse that those specified in relevant Swedish collective agreements.

Community preference is respected. Work permits are granted for a maximum of two years following an extension which can be thought about. Work permits will be granted for at most two years or the period of employment, if shorter.

Permits will be open to extension on one or more occasions. Such applications for extension can be made while in Sweden. The total duration of a permit will be limited to no more than four years. After four years it may be possible to convert the temporary residence and work permit into a permanent residence permit.

The Blue Card and its dilemma

The concept of the EU Blue Card features prominently on the agenda and deserves, of course, the closest scrutiny. The Conference Discussion Paper outlines many of the policy dilemmas and choices that have to be overcome if this initiative is to measure up to its original promise of a migratory space that is accessible to the “best and brightest” from all parts of the world. It may be useful briefly to touch on some of them.

  • Should migration programmes for the highly skilled place emphasis on temporary residence or on permanent entry? In other words should highly skilled migrants be seen as a revolving pool of talent or as a stable, long-term investment?
  • Should the focus be on the management of supply or demand? The first method allows potential migrants to apply on the basis of certain personal and professional characteristics that favour employability. 
  • Successful applicants are then granted access to the job market and allowed to carve out their working space through personal initiative and know how. 
  • The reasoning behind this approach is that a healthy economy should be fed with a steady supply of talent, with normal labour market dynamics ensuring its attribution to areas of need. 
  • The other method requires a more or less specific identification of demand (expressed most commonly through employer sponsorships) following which targeted recruitment is effected. Which of the two is the most appropriate for Europe? Should there be room for both? 
  • Policy coherence is a difficult challenge in the field of migration management. How can policies governing the entry and stay of highly skilled migrants be meaningfully connected to other, often broader, relevant areas of public administration such as labour market management, human resource development or education? 
  • What stakeholder partnerships may have to be developed to ensure effective formulation and implementation of policies and programmes? Cooperative effort may be necessary at national level (for instance among government departments, employer associations, trade unions and academic institutions), at regional level (among EU countries) or again with countries of destination.

Brain drain

The matter of brain drain deserves a generous share of attention as deceptively familiar but complex issue. In the past, highly skilled labour migration was often seen as a winner-takes-it-all game, in which developed countries make full use of their powers of attraction to entice the best among the world’s tertiary educated persons, to the detriment of the developing countries that had invested in their education.

More recently however, it has become apparent that there can be winners on both sides: Developed countries do indeed stand to gain from the injection of creative energy, from the input of skills, from the acquisition of knowledge, and from the development of stronger and more diverse professional networks.

Countries of origin, on the other hand, can also benefit in several different ways. First, through the remittances received from their citizens abroad; second from the creation of knowledge and know how circuits through which, for instance, new technology can be acquired; and from the eventual return of the highly skilled migrants themselves as potential industry leaders and investors.


As we look to the future, there may be reason for cautious optimism but only if all stakeholders are prepared to work hard at ensuring positive outcomes. Fresh thinking is very much needed. I wonder, somewhat tentatively, whether it might be possible to conceive of the development of an “ecological” approach to the management of highly skilled mobility.

From this perspective, highly skilled migrants would be regarded as a valuable and renewable resource and their abundance, scarcity and distribution would be the subject of study with a view to ensuring sustainability of the resource.

On the basis of this analogy, it might, for instance, be feasible to identify socio-economic environments where the supply of highly skilled personnel is in excess of domestic needs and therefore readily available for employment abroad.

India stands out as an example of a country which is positioning itself to be a provider of skills to the world, while protecting its ability to respond to its considerable educational, technological and industrial needs. In contrast, it might also be possible to discern very different, fragile socio-economic contexts where highly skilled resources are scarce, easily depleted, and the issue of conservation is a matter of survival. A large number of least developed countries easily fit this profile.

The question is whether the exploration of such lines of thought might lead to eventual options for policy and practice grounded on the adaptation of the concepts of fair trade, and equitable partnerships. Some initial steps have already been taken towards the formulation of standards for ethical recruitment of highly skilled professionals (for example in relation to the employment of health practitioners).

For its part, the development of meaningful partnerships between countries of origin and destination in relation joint efforts towards the training of highly skilled personnel is in its infancy.

Nearly 20 years of careful experimentation have proved at least one thing: That highly skilled migration is unlikely to disappear any time soon. Our challenge is to determine how future work in this field can be made more purposeful, more coherent and more effective. I will listen with great interest to answers you will no doubt provide.


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Gervais Appave is the Special Policy Adviser to the Director General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). He is Co-Editor-in-Chief of the World Migration Report 2008.