Intra-EU Mobility and the Highly Skilled: Is Europeans’ Preferred Type and Length of Employment the ‘Missing’ Element Towards Increasing Labour Mobility?

Notwithstanding – and in part prompted by – the economic crisis, the flow of mobile people searching for work continues to grow in the European Union; from 4.7 million in 2005 to 8 million in 2013, mainly driven by job opportunities in countries of destination[1]. If a great deal of discussion on this issue is dominated either by focusing on the ‘modest’ numbers of intra-EU mobility compared to other well-established hubs of labour mobility (i.e. North America and Australia), or on the obstacles for greater mobility in Europe (i.e. linguistic diversity and institutional differences), for the purpose of this post I would like to take a more encouraging approach. I would like to focus on the characteristics of this mobility flow (i.e. skilled workers), which may have a greater potential to contribute towards substantial socio-economic gains, reduce unemployment and geographical mismatches, as well as to increase the well-being of mobile EU citizens. Yet, gains are usually conditional also on improvement in some areas, in particular integration of workers into the labour market through adequate opportunities for entry, stay, growth and career development.

As identified in the 2014 EU Employment and Social Situation report[2], compared to the pre-crisis period there has been a striking change towards an “increase in the overall level of education [of mobile workers in which the] …proportion of highly educated among recent intra-EU movers has increased substantially (from 27% in 2008 to 41% in 2013) [among] all citizenship groups”, thus reflecting both the overall up-skilling of the EU’s labour force, along with changes in demand for labour in the region.

“Labour Mobility in the European Union – The Inconvenient Truth”, Lecture at University of Bristol, UK, 10 February 2014This should be considered as a positive trend in view of the new economy. Nonetheless, studies show that a large percentage of mobile workers, in particular Central and Eastern Europeans, are employed in jobs for which they are over-qualified[3]. In fact, over-qualification was true of more than 50% of those with a tertiary education in 2012.”[4] This represents a loss of human capital and revenue for the region, as well as having a negative impact on the well-being of mobile workers and their families.

Consequently, if we look at the current trends of increasing intra-EU mobility of tertiary educated workers and on the evidence-based materials available on this group, it is vital to consider adequate responses to some of the core issues related to labour market integration, such as: de-skilling of workers, availability of quality jobs along with steady career prospects, and services in support of intra-EU jobseekers. Services that may go beyond existing programmes which place greater emphasis on specific age groups (i.e. traineeship) or actions which are mainly based on provision of information. There are examples of positive initiatives on services for the highly skilled, which unfortunately do not get much attention, compared to the negative coverage on intra-EU mobility (i.e. ‘welfare tourism’). More on services in future posts.

Moreover, in line with the issue of employment and intra-EU mobility, I take this opportunity to refer to the Euroforum Report on Intra-EU Migration and Labour Market as a very insightful work, which provides the reader with some key elements in the discussion, including useful statistics, a legal and historical account of intra-EU mobility, as well as indicators of barriers to mobility. This report, along with other relevant news, studies and initiatives, can continue to serve as an on-going force towards a greater dialogue on the subject based on evidence, in particular as a space-opener to gather and understand individuals as well as the collective experiences of European professionals working in another EU member state.

Despite the rich data derived from a number of surveys on the intention to move within the EU for employment purposes, it is in the actual experience of those who have moved that we find the evidence on barriers to be addressed, as well as the opportunities for advancement in relation to workers’ integration into the labour market. Integration into the labour market goes beyond economic growth and competition; it speaks in particular to many professionals regarding their yearning to contribute to their communities, to utilize their talents and to realize their professional path.

In general, mobility of highly skilled workers is one of those subjects that wield a number of positive opinions from key stakeholders. However, it is important to consider one’s view on the subject in relation to facts and specific context in order to avoid having an opinion based on perceptions and assumptions that may be outdated. This includes over-optimistic views of transferability of human capital in relation to internationally mobile workers, especially for self-initiators. If flexibility of workers is the state of play, so should be our capacity for critical thinking in questioning textbook theories and paradigms, such as the War for Talent, which may need some adjustment. There may or may not be a war for talent among some segments of the economy; in my opinion, what should be of greater concern is the focus on the realities of the highly skilled already on the move, that is the 41% (2013) and the potential ones in all sectors of the economy, not only those in the high demand categories.

When looking at barriers to intra-EU mobility, most writers highlight linguistic and institutional barriers, along with the problems of transferring social entitlements as the key factors for the low level of migration. However, when reading the Eurobarometer 2010 survey on mobility experiences and intentions of EU citizens, while having in mind the highly skilled, I think we are to consider an additional element, which is Europeans’ preferred type and length of employment. As such, “Europeans who envisage working abroad are most likely to be interested in permanent positions in another country (55%), followed at a distant second by other types of work (such as contract) (19%) and a temporary assignment with an employer (17%). Seasonal and traineeship are less popular…Those aged 25-39 are most likely to be interested in permanent work, whilst those aged 40-54 are most likely to be interested in a temporary assignment with their employer… In line with this finding, respondents prefer permanent positions when they move abroad; one in five Europeans who envisage working abroad plan to do so for as long as possible”[5]. Therefore, when considering this additional element in the report, one could reason that linguistic and institutional differences may not be the major deterrent, but rather that EU citizens willing to move seek employment opportunities which are more stable and permanent in nature, hence long term good for themselves, their families, employers and the economy. The benefits, like the costs of mobility may be elusive to measure in macro-economic terms, but they are tangible for those individuals involved in the process of mobility – ask mobile EU citizens or international migrants and they will tell you in great detail.

As we live through a time of significant changes, the demands on us to continuously strive to adapt, act, and innovate – all three traits familiar to professional mobile/migrant workers – are present, along with the pragmatism involved in one’s decision to migrate. Perhaps, instead of looking at differences as barriers to mobility, we might look at current labour market segmentation, the extensive use of short-term contracts, and tangible employment opportunities in member states. If we take the Eurobarometer 2010 findings – provided the quality and length of employment is long term and more stable – perhaps more Europeans will be inclined to move into positions where they can maximize their skills and talents for the benefit of all. Mobility of highly skilled cannot be projected/or worked-out outside the on-going labour market transition, especially given the employers’ critical role in the process of entry and retention of workers, as well as their vital knowledge and acceptance of education, skills and credentials from another country. Otherwise, mobility simply becomes a form of movement rather than an intrinsic element in the socio-economic engine for innovation, sustainability, and inclusive growth. Furthermore, a number of stakeholders still overlook that “with the exception of those at the top rank [as well as intra-corporation/organization transferees], most skilled migrants cannot afford to be rootless, for valid economic and social-cultural reasons. Skilled migrants are not as hypermobile as imagined. They value the cultural attractions and lifestyles associated with particular destinations, and are inclined to put down roots once they have settled in a new place they call home[6].

When comparing hubs of labour migration, it is worthy to consider that if on one hand mobility is a conduit for learning, innovation and growth opportunities, in a long run a “hypermobility” of self-initiators may not always be sustainable/or desirable to certain individuals and/or businesses.  Therefore, perhaps the focus should be less on numbers and more on the quality of contribution (i.e., socio-economic, cultural, personal, and so on) generated as part of a single/or multiple experiences of intra- EU mobility. Evidence based on quality may yield alternative responses when searching for innovative ways to address on-going challenges, after all “No problem can be solved by the same consciousness that created it. We need to see the world anew” (Albert Einstein)


Ps: SURVEY ON MOBILITY OF PROFESSIONAL WOMEN IN THE EU – Seeking Participants: 40 Jobseekers & 20 self-employed/entrepreneurs before closing of the survey (Summer 2015). For those matching the profile (i.e., women, EU citizens, highly skilled, living in another EU Member States) and willing to support this research initiative, please click the page above – Survey Mobility-Highly Skilled.


[1] László ANDOR, European Commissioner responsible for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, “Labour Mobility in the European Union – The Inconvenient Truth”, Lecture at University of Bristol, UK, 10 February 2014, including graphic/slide below (Google search).

[2] EU Employment and Social Situation, Quarterly Review, Supplement June 2014, “Recent trends in the geographical mobility of workers in the EU”, European Commission, 2014, page 23.

[3] A number of studies and articles on the subject of de-skilling highlight this point, in particular Galgoczi, Bela and Janine Leschke, “Intra-EU Labour Migration after Eastern Enlargement and During the Crisis”, Working Paper 2012, 13, European Trade Union Institute.

[4] László ANDOR, European Commissioner responsible for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, “Labour Mobility in the European Union – The Inconvenient Truth”, Lecture at University of Bristol, UK, 10 February 2014, page 17.

[5] Geographical and Labour Market Mobility Report, Eurobarometer 2010, European Commission

[6] Tseng, Yen-Fen, “Shanghai Rush: Skilled Migrants in a Fantasy City”, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 2011.