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On 7 June 2016, the European Commission presented the proposal for the reform of the 2009 EU Blue Card scheme[1]. The proposal has as its main aim: to attract qualified and talented third country nationals to the European Union based on labour market demand and an offer of employment. Along with revamping the existing rules, the new proposal aims to: (1) establish a single EU wide scheme (instead of in parallel with national ones); (2), enhance intra-EU mobility of professionals; and (3), strengthen the rights of both Blue Card holders and their family members. On July 2017, the EU Council agreed on a mandate for negotiations with the European Parliament on the new proposal which is currently on-going[2].

The purpose of this piece is not to provide a comprehensive legal review of the new EU Blue Card proposal, or to appraise the different opinions and critiques raised to date by different parties. This I leave for the reader’s review and interpretation, while recommending the EP Briefing “Revision of EU Card Directive”[3], as a sound piece, encompassing an overview of the process and opinions. Instead, I offer some food-for-thought while pondering on the overall main aim of the scheme, where I believe it is noteworthy to consider taking a wider look at the qualitative aspects of the 2009 experience. In my opinion, qualitative evidence could help to broaden our understanding vis-à-vis the goals of the new proposal, in particular its attractiveness to Europe and a gender perspective.  As such, I would like to suggest that more qualitative evidence, especially regarding outcomes for the beneficiaries, gender aspects and a closer look at the economic sectors which made greater use of the 2009 scheme be considered. This is so, since deepening our knowledge of those three aspects might yield evidence which could be useful in the process of developing, implementing (and adapting) new and on-going schemes which are moving towards better results in the global competition for talent.

In fact, this piece resulted from my reading of the new proposal after curious probing on two aspects: What are some of the outcomes (from a qualitative standpoint) which result from the experiences of those beneficiaries[4] of EU Blue Card, including migrants, their partners as well as employers who have participated in the program? Also, in parallel what are the outcomes which result from the most sought after national schemes? Below, I shall consider some of the aspects in my introduction.

Qualitative Data and Evaluation

Based on the readings of the EU Blue Card evaluation, I was left with several unanswered questions, including: (1) Which economic sectors have benefited the most from the scheme? (2) What was the  breakdown of gender composition of main applicants? And (3) what was the outcome for family members, in particular spouses/partners in relation to labour market integration?

Information on these three issues could have established a better understanding of some of the aspects at play in relation to the experience of beneficiaries of the program[5]. Moreover, the inclusion of more qualitative data on the experience of beneficiaries (ie. career trajectories, challenges, opportunities, professional outcomes, etc.) would have provided added value (ie. building of a rich profile of participants) to feed into the evaluation process towards new program development. Especially as to whom we are attracting, whom we are missing and where our efforts should be improved in order to attract the talent Europe seeks. In the end, I believe that a broad understanding of the participants’ experiences can also throw light onto important issues, such as potential gaps in need of addressing from the perspective of users, as well as key features which render the experience of coming to Europe attractive beyond the scheme per se. Hence, information which can be useful in future promotions of the new EU Blue Card to attract other potential candidates and employers to join the scheme. Furthermore, collection and analysis of qualitative data is a useful means towards identifying potential unintended consequences regarding overall professional development and the well-being of those on the mobile path[6] (eg. deskilling & trade-off where professionals accept employment which is better paid in country of destination, but offering less opportunity for future growth and development).

Additionally, knowledge of the most prevalent sectors, which have benefited from the 2009 EU Blue Card arrangement, may help to avert pre-conception when designing new schemes, since there is a tendency in literature to over-generalize and promote highly-skilled workers on the basis of ICT and business management professionals. Both of these sectors are more prone to flexible working agreements and reliability on mobility compared, for example, with ‘health care provider’, even though the “health sector is a major source of employment” in the EU[7]. As a result, a narrow “vision” of which sector one is catering to, may be leading policy makers to place excessive focus on the long-term potentiality of regional mobility (intra-EU mobility/multiple change of residence) as an intrinsic “added value” for beneficiaries, as opposed to considering other areas which may be a more relevant value added. For example, by shortening the length of time required for the acquisition of permanent residence, thus diminishing the potential number of renewals of work permits, promoting greater stability while diminishing the dependency on employers. In fact, I wonder, is de facto intra-regional mobility a must to most employers and workers who benefited from the previous scheme, that is, was long-term regional mobility a limitation to the capacity of employers and workers to function well and deliver services in the EU, or was it an “annoyance” and a cost added to business and beneficiaries that warrants being eliminated? I probe, because although highly-skilled workers who are EU citizens enjoy Free Movement; nevertheless, most don’t take advantage of it in terms of long-term relocation for employment purposes, while a large number take advantage of it for short-term study and short-term assignment.

Following the inquiry on added value, if one considers health care workers and their employers, long-term mobility may hinder their ability to ensure service delivery, stability and quality control. On the other hand, short-term mobility usually enhances professional development and network opportunities (ie. participation in short-term trainings and teaching opportunities, conferences, etc.), thus in administrative terms, procedures should always be simplified in order to facilitate the process for the employers and workers, as a good business practice. However, from a sector perspective, perhaps one should consider that doctors and nurses maybe less interested in opportunities for long-term regional mobility than the incentives of long-term contracts; affordable and shortened accreditation processes; opportunities for career progression and a good package of integration services. These could well be the ‘real’ added-values of a scheme that aims to attract and retain foreign workers in a highly competitive healthcare sector worldwide [8]. Studies on the mobility of the highly-skilled have echoed numerous times that expectations of career advancement are equally or even more important than financial gains[9]. In fact, in some sectors on-going mobility may not be the “ticket” to satisfaction or advancement at a given point in their professional career, nor desirable from a standpoint of family integration to the host community.

What is more, both health care providers and their patients understand that good service depends not only on individual technical skills but on the ability of health care professionals to integrate and perform those skills in a given cultural context. In essence, to function efficiently and effectively, a system integrating international health care professionals requires an investment of time and skills on the part of both the migrant professionals and their employers, as well as hands-on experience and development of confidence and trust in the professional/client relationship.

I concur with experts that the digital sector is one of exponential growth in our century. However, for years to come, the health and care sectors remain one of the most important in the European Union for job growth and sustainable well-being, due to demographic trends pointing to an aging society. In fact, most Europeans still prefer to be cared for and assisted by fellow human beings rather than robots and computer programs. Technology may be a great facilitator of services, however, no App can substitute for a therapeutic conversation or provide the necessary support for those with mental illnesses and/or their families brought about by old age conditions (ie. Dementia, Alzheimer’s, etc.). In my opinion, before becoming too caught up on technical aspects of schemes, it is important to consider some over-arching questions in relation to potential fields of economic growth in years to come and specific sectors employing highly-skilled workers. For example, if we take health care – how are healthcare professionals already contributing to the healthcare services in Europe? How can this group of healthcare professionals contribute to future healthcare requirements in the EU? How do those healthcare practices relate to the different needs of migrant communities residing in Europe (ie. bilingual services, cross-cultural understanding, etc.)? What are the needs and aspiration of highly-skilled healthcare professionals and those of their family members?

In fact, I propose that greater attention should be given to schemes such as the EU Blue Card and their accompanied measures, which reflect the needs of foreign professionals for extended sustainable career prospects, since this inherent inclusion within an overall strategy would go a long way to attract talent, while in the case of health workers to assure patients’ wellbeing. Hence a better balance between the interest of migrant professionals and those of the host community they are serving may make Europe more attractive than other places.

Another relevant point of observation on the need for qualitative evidence relates to assessment and an opportunity to gain a broader understanding of the different issues at stake moving beyond the usual economic and legal matters. Highly-skilled migration schemes operating in receptive countries of immigration as, for example, Canada, have gone through continuous policy evaluations and reviews[10].  These reviews are broad and inclusive of many issues, including gender dimensions, outcomes and the wellbeing of beneficiaries, especially their integration into the labour market. Evaluation of outcomes to beneficiaries is a critical aspect of policy review, especially since our knowledge based on the highly-skilled professional is greatly influenced by a macro-economic view of a “challenge-free-migration” paradigm. However, such state-of-play renders the pleas and challenges of highly-skilled workers “invisible” to policy makers, social services and other relevant stakeholders. Perhaps, if individual Member States carried out a more qualitative review of national schemes as part of their highly-skilled migration work program, this information should be shared under the guise of “lessons learned”, as well as considered when building new regional/national schemes. It is important to underscore that it was the very criticism based on empirical evidence by scholars in Canada on the mismatch and underemployment of highly-skilled immigrants which also contributed to changes in policy from a mainly supply-driven system (ie. “point-system”) to the introduction of demand-driven schemes (ie. “expression of interest”).

Expression of interest” schemes, place employment contracts as one of the decisive elements of a successful application, subsequent immigration and the right to remain in countries implementing this system. Experts may differ in their views over the “pros and cons” of a demand-driven system, nevertheless, I agree that having a job in one’s professional field upon arrival in the country of destination is a crucial element which assists positive movement towards an optimal integration into the labour market. In addition, appropriate employment upon arrival is a major advantage in order to avoid major pitfalls in the process, such as loss of skills due to an unemployment period and costs related to mobility (ie. loss of wages and use of savings, increased isolation, anxiety and other mental health issues, loss of professional networks, undermining of professional identity, to name a few). However, as noted by academia and migrants alike, the greatest risks connected to a failed international work experience are borne by migrant workers and their family members; hence the plea by Olsson to reconsider a more beneficial balanced allocation of risks for migrants embedded in labour mobility schemes[11].

I take this opportunity to underscore, that based on research and work experience we know a great deal about the challenges and limited opportunities of low-skilled workers. In comparison, there is little evidence from ethnographic studies on the outcome and wellbeing of highly-skilled workers. In fact, most of the evidence I have gathered has come through the use of qualitative interviews and focus groups in a few studies. Such a research approach has provided rich material and a broader perspective of highly-skilled migrants. For example, based on a number of interviews, Mozetic[12] demonstrated that the self-image and identification of highly-skilled workers interviewed for her study was overwhelmingly related to their professional identity (ie. doctor/health care professionals), compared to the legal category (ie. asylum seekers/refugees), assigned to them. These findings represent an important dimension in support of the new EU Blue Card proposal regarding the inclusion of beneficiaries of international protection. In fact, research efforts looking at the professional trajectory of highly-skilled asylum seekers and refugees is much needed in order to identify common challenges and opportunities based on their experience in relation to integration into the labour market, as well as building an alternative narrative as contributors.

Gender Dimension … a missing perspective

Another added value that a qualitative based evaluation of the EU Blue Card regime could bring to the table is the potential to identify unnoticed aspects that could discourage the movement of highly-skilled workers to Europe. For example, Article 16, Paragraph 6 of the new EU Blue Card proposal concerning access to the labour market by family members, allows Member States to continue with labour market tests, instead of granting automatic access to employment without additional hurdles for partners/spouses. If one takes into account the years of experience and reporting from private sector companies (which rely on highly-skilled mobile employees), one is faced with an important discouraging factor in the equation of attracting experienced candidates for an assignment abroad[13]. Namely, double-career couples, where the accompanying spouse is not willing to leave his or her employment. Dual-career partnership is an important element in this equation due to the high level of declining relocation[14]. In fact, some good companies have attempted to provide services in support of a second career partner, including public institutions, such as universities and the private sector, as an attractive career incentive mechanism. From a gender perspective, most accompanying spouses are women who may have an established career in their country of origin/residence. Consequently, movement without employment, additional labour market “tests”, combined with a prospect of long-term unemployment in the country of destination is professionally downgrading/or disastrous careerwise, and potentially financially damaging for both.

Additional administrative hurdles like “labour market tests” pose a particular challenge to foreign professionals given the levels of unemployment in Europe, combined with other barriers in the labour market (ie. language skills, validation and acceptance of foreign degrees and work experience, preference for local professionals by employers, etc.), thus contributing to make the EU potentially less attractive. From a gender perspective, notwithstanding the progress made on family reunification rights and residence in the EU Blue Card proposal, it may not be gender-sensitive or attractive enough when considering the position of spouse/partners of main applicants regarding long term employment, career and financial prospects. Besides, I wonder what is the reason behind the need to curb the possibility of having a partner/spouse employed in the labour market which justifies additional administrative hurdles for them? In the end, additional “market tests” for spouses/partners (comprised mostly of women) can amount to de facto discriminatory measures against women which runs contrary to the EU agenda which promotes gender equality.

Attempts to balance negative prospects may be possible by eliminating the possibility of any additional “tests” after admission[15], combined with a work-permit, as well as adding access to appropriate supporting services for partners seeking employment.  This has the potential to strengthen service provisions and programs directly linked to employment prospects for family members of EU Blue Card holders. Effective services in support of enabling labour-market access may serve as an attractive element in the decision-making process when choosing a given destination (see example of Dual Career programs). It is important to highlight that access and support to job searches should not be viewed as “cost-added” but rather as an investment towards an additional worker in the labour market as well as a potential economic/social contributor to the host society.

Overall, lack of qualitative evidence hinders our understanding and may be in part due to stakeholders’ preferences for large-scale macro-economic overviews, allocation of limited funds for qualitative studies, along with the popular “cost-effective” desk reviews. However, it is important to consider that excessive reliance on overviews of highly-skilled workers may be obscuring our vision concerning the challenges and opportunities experienced by this category, while uncovering new arguments that could be useful in attracting greater numbers of talented third country nationals to Europe.This is particularly acute, as we experience a rapidly changing environment of work and business practice.

Without doubt, the greatest attracting factors for highly-skilled workers to a given destination remain the tangible prospects of  successful integration into the labour market as a whole, including enjoying thriving professional ecosystems and future career/business prospects. Therefore, access to a healthy and strong labour market remains a strong factor accounting for why certain destinations will continue to attract more highly-skilled workers compared to others. Moreover, employment and mobility are viewed by the highly-skilled as an investment, encompassing risks and opportunities for both self and family members. Then perhaps the on-going labour market segmentation and erosion of stable work contracts may count as one of the strongest factors undermining the goal of attracting professionals to a given destination. When considering regional mobility as added value, it is important to realize that company transferees differ from self-initiators, since the former can bear multiple long-term movements as they remain with the same employer, while the latter have to seek and secure employment, along with bearing the costs and challenges of setting up in each new residence[16].

For these reasons, perhaps it is important to take an in-depth look into the experiences of highly-skilled intra-EU mobiles when considering potential differences of integration outcomes in the labour market in relation to their counterparts (ie. third country nationals). For example, recognition and esteem of professional experience assigned by local employers, as well as established professional networks through previous study/or short-term work experience in a given country of destination may contribute to a more successful path[17].  Note that more on the parallel experiences between intra-EU mobiles and third country migrants can be found by consulting previous posts and references on this page.

In conclusion, as negotiations of the proposal on a new EU Blue Card regime continue, greater effort is needed to focus on what is of common interest and value vis-à-vis the aims of the Directive – to attract and retain workers, while contributing to the economic growth of the Union within the spirit and agenda of achieving gender equality for the benefit of all involved. It is important to underline that migration schemes are simply frameworks enabling the process, and that the crucial element in the “attraction equation” remains a healthy, prosperous, and sustainable socio-economic environment – exactly what one would consider when looking at a prospective investment. This is especially true when the “investment” is one’s life and career prospect, along with those of family members.

 

 

[1] “Directive on the conditions of entry and residence of third-country nationals for the purpose of highly-skilled employment”, COM(2016) 378 final

[2] http://data.consilium.europa.eu/doc/document/CM-1420-2018-INIT/en/pdf

[3] EPRS | European Parliamentary Research Service, Author: Martina Prpic , Members’ Research Service
,PE 603.942, 12/12/2017

[4] Information on challenges and opportunities, professional outcomes, well-being, support services, etc.

[5] Missing information is due to a lack of data collected by Member States on those items. See footnote of evaluation.

[6] POCARIM, ERANET, etc.

[7]EU governments spend an average of 15% of their budgets on health, making it one of the largest and fastest growing areas of expenditure…The health sector is a major source of employment, and timely access to high quality healthcare contributes to social inclusion”, e-news, Public Health, European Commission, 2018 http://ec.europa.eu/newsroom/sante/newsletter-specific-archive-issue.cfm?newsletter_service_id=327&

[8] “The Growing field of Health Care”, http://www.careerprofiles.info/growing-healthcare-industry.html

[9] To name a few, most recent article of korpela &pitkanen “Temporary Migration between the EU and Asia”, Pathways towards Legal Migration into the EU, CEPS, 2017.

[10] OSCE, “Gender and Labour Migration Trainer’s Manual”, 2010.

[11] Olsson, P., “Fair allocation of risks: a challenge for labour migration systems”, Pathways towards Legal Migration into the EU, CEPS, 2017

[12] Mozetic, Katarina, “ Being Highly-skilled and a Refugee: Experiences of non-European Physicians in Sweden”, MA Thesis, Malmo University, 2015.

[13] Riusala, K and V. Suutari, “Expatriation and careers: Perspectives of expatriates and spouses”, Career Development International 5/2, 2000

[14] Atlas World Group, 50th Annual Corporate Relocation Survey Results, 2017

[15] Permits Foundation have echo calls for elimination of test in a letter to MEP, Permits Foundation 14/06/2014

[16] See Reference page for articles on self-initiators.

[17] Avoto, J. Dynamics in Highly-skilled Migration: A European Perspective, Inaugural-Dissertation, Hannover, 2009