Opportunities and Challenges on the Path of Labour Market Integration – The Case of Professional Women on the Move in Europe, Brussels 18 October 2019

On the 18 October 2019, a seminar on the opportunities and challenges on the path of labour market integration of professional women on the move in Europe was held in Brussels, under the auspices of a volunteer-led initiative Here we are Belgium. This seminar had a threefold objective: one, to raise awareness and visibility related to the contribution and experiences of highly skilled women on the move; two, address misconceptions based on empirical evidence (i.e. research and examples of initiatives); and third, create a ‘space’ for exchange of information and dialogue among the participants for the purpose of knowledge sharing. Moreover, this seminar also made it possible to plant a seed toward continued information sharing and potential future collaboration. The presentations and discussions drew awareness to the complexities of professional mobility faced by highly skilled women (intra-EU mobiles and third-country nationals), in particular, those in a dual-career partnership, facing for example – the challenge of staying active in the labour market and the pursuit of a career path while on the move. In addition, presentations also drew upon opportunities, especially when discussing some of the practices developed and implemented in places, ranging from the Netherlands to Mozambique and beyond. Despite geographic differences, all these initiatives share a common goal to make a difference in the lives of professionals on the move regarding employment through, for example, the creation and strengthening of professional networks as supporting mechanisms for job-seekers, matching practices and mentoring. Some of the initiatives have also a common thread – they were created and lead by spouses on the move who recognized the need to organize, develop and implement actions for the benefit of a target group which is still perceived first and foremost as “privileged-expats”, instead of professional women who want and need to stay active in the labour market.

As highlighted in the discussions, research findings especially those deriving from the private sector on transnational mobility, consistently shows that spouses/partners overwhelmingly want to work after movement. This presents a challenge for companies which cannot ensure full-employment to double career couples, leading to several managers declining assignments abroad or ending before completion. Faced with such evidence throughout the years, it is important to start seeing and treating mobility of highly skilled as a unit of double-careers, instead of single talent, if stakeholders want not only to attract talent but also to retain and address potential waste of skills, long-term unemployment, breakdown of families and gender gaps in the labour market. A win-win situation can only be considered as such when both partners in the process are employed and enjoy the opportunities of a fulfilling career prospect. Therefore, when looking at mobility of highly skilled it is important to consider the unit with both gains and losses, otherwise, we would be representing half-truths.

Some of the significant issues addressed by the speakers/participants included:

  • The need to recognize that some structural problems/barriers needs to be addressed (e.g. cumbersome processes of accreditation, differentiation made by potential employers on local vs. “foreign” workers on the basis of education and work experience acquired abroad/or in the EU, absence of support services, disadvantages in the labour market – based on gender, age, and nationality), as well as individual challenges (i.e. skills mismatching based on locality, lack of language skills in the official language of destination country, etc.). It’s important to recognize that the negative consequences of mobility and employment do not rest merely on individuals or structural problems/barriers, but both must be considered when tackling this issue. The fundamental right of Free Movement in the EU facilitates the mobility of EU citizens in the Union; yet experiences of intra-EU mobiles and third-country nationals shows that improvements can still be made in order to facilitate an optimal matching that would enable a greater participation of highly skilled workers into the labour market of host countries, especially of women;
  • Participants concurred that there is a need for greater visibility and understanding of the challenges affecting the target group, as well as opportunities which remain dormant due to a lack of attention to an untapped source of talent residing mostly in urban areas throughout the EU. More effective services and programs aimed at “putting people back to work” covering all age groups (in particular those affected by long-term unemployment), as well as more specific information on opportunities and support services geared to highly skilled job-seekers in countries of destination in the EU need greater consideration and addressing;
  • The need to examine and tackle the unwanted consequences of mobility-related to loss of employment, skills and long-term unemployment, including loss of social rights (i.e. pension), career penalties, economic dependency on spouse/partner, low level of satisfaction within the process, as well as greater attention to movers’ well-being (emotional and psychological costs related to their loss of professional opportunities and its impact upon families), was also underscored;
  • Appeals for more research were also made and were followed by a robust discussion on using research findings towards collaborative action to address some of the challenges while harnessing the opportunities to put “talent to work”for the benefit of individuals and their families, employers and host community. It was stressed that research initiatives should go beyond findings and towards collaboration and action with relevant stakeholders;
  • It was observed that highly skilled women on the move are a diverse group, and within this diversity, their needs vary, but they also share a common interest: that of staying active in the labour market (i.e. acquiring and retaining employment/ or performing economic activities as self-employed/entrepreneurs, learn new skills, stay up to date with developments in their sector and contact with professionals in their field). Essentially, initiatives should consider creating services and programs based on equal opportunities, where, to the extent possible, beneficiaries in countries of destination would not be differentiated based on immigration status or age, since such oversight may prevent talent workers from gaining a foothold into the labour market. Seeing and treating dual-career couples as “one worker + one dependent”, places one of the partners into a disadvantage, especially in what is perceived by some movers as an environment which lacks effective support services geared towards highly skilled job-seekers;
  • It is central to underline that gender-sensitive mobility policies, programs and services are important in view of the specific modalities and challenges women may face, such as over-qualification and de-skilling which results in a loss of opportunities for building human capital and economic growth for the host society, as well as having a personal cost to the individual (i.e. financial and professional). As such, participants accentuated that there is a need to implement initiatives that can mitigate the loss of opportunities experienced by professionals on the move in relation to employment and career path, including addressing long-term unemployment and potential loss of skills through greater engagement with employers; effective mentoring and matching programs; active professional networking opportunities for job-seekers; formal work-placement schemes; information sharing based on one-to-one services and intense preparation and support to candidates for the labour market; reasonable procedures of recognition of diplomas and work experience gained prior to mobility, etc.;
  • Based on the examples of initiatives presented at the seminar, one can observe that databases are most effective on matching candidates to potential employers when those responsible for them (being a program manager or entity) are aware of the pool of candidates included, as well as of potential employers in the labour market which they are able to bring together into the matching process based on experience, rather than algorisms. As such, perhaps consideration should be given to support several pilots testing initiatives at the local level as an approach to matching, instead of focusing on the creation of ever bigger databases at macro-level. As pointed out by speakers from three distinctive initiatives, it is important to work with SMEs, NGOs and other sets of employers outside the major companies, who may be willing to receive the support of an entity which can identify and propose matching candidates in accordance to their needs. Initiatives working with professionals on the move, especially long-term unemployed, can perhaps fulfil some of the gaps in this area, where PES, recruitment companies and head-hunters may overlook non-standard/non-linear CVs. As such, more support should be considered to innovative and social-entrepreneurial-initiatives in this field, to tackle potential mismatching, leading to long-term unemployment. As observed by several speakers, for professionals a gap in the CV represents a significant barrier to employment with hard to find alternative solutions aimed at reintegration into the labour market in positions commensurable to the movers’ skills and experience prior to mobility;
  • It was observed that employers and stakeholders (i.e. government/city officials, social partners, etc.) standard responses on how to approach the internationalization of labour markets are not sufficient when dealing with dual-career couples. Moreover, as concurred by one of the speakers, social and aid services should not only tackle and support highly skilled third-country nationals or refugees based on their immediate needs but should also create a space in which the professional needs and identity of beneficiaries can be expressed, recognized and harnessed. After all, for many professionals on the move, their professional identity and self-perception/definition may come before their conditions/status, especially when for some individuals their skills may be the only hope to escape a condition of neediness and dependency upon social services/host society; yet, the longer individuals are unable to put into use their skills, the higher the penalties and their dependency rate. As concurred by speakers, migrant professionals need to receive the acknowledgement of their skills and experience, since their identity as a professional is linked to others’ recognizing their potential contribution and capacity to perform. As observed by EUmentorSTEM, mentoring/coaching initiatives which were adapted to the target group enabled the beneficiaries to rethink their value, as well as provided them with a possibility of networking and having space where they were recognized/acknowledge as professionals. This process is empowering for the women, as well as enabling them to start networking among themselves, thus becoming more active in their approach to job search in their field of expertise.
  • Stakeholders’ mindsets should undergo changes towards more action and awareness of the challenges faced by professionals on the move to harness the opportunities within the process of highly skilled mobility, aimed at greater utilization of talent and economic participation of professional women in the labour market. In the end, as observed and concurred by participants, lack of awareness by stakeholders concerning the experiences of professionals on the move, calls for greater advocacy to revert downward trends;
  • Concerning the individual experience of professionals on the move, speakers highlighted the need for preparedness as an essential element, in the process. The following recommendations were put forwards:
  1. There is a need for preparedness for the harsh realities vs. expectations of employment commensurate to ones’ skill and level of experience prior to movement, including a potential gap in the CV;
  2. There is a need for a thorough preparation prior to the move (including seeking useful information on the realities in the labour market, support services, accreditation process, and useful contacts);
  3. There is a need for self-assessment, a “space” to talk about failure, as well as a need to build mental-resilience in the process, combined with the possibility to access support services.

Based on the seminar presentations and discussions, five points can be highlighted. This is not an exhaustive list, but rather an invitation to reflect upon potential areas for future engagement:

1. More research, dialogue and awareness-raising are needed into the experiences of professionals on the move to mitigate loss and harness opportunities towards a win-win situation;

2. There is a need to develop and sustain service-oriented initiatives in support of professionals on the move seeking employment and economic activities, especially for those under the category of long-term unemployed and older workers, who may be underserviced in comparison to other categories of disadvantaged workers in the labour market;

3. Employment is central to the well-being and a key factor in the overall integration process of professionals on the move, as such programs and initiatives which aimed at “putting people back to work” (mentoring, matching, work-placement, and others which engage with/or are led by employers) should be favoured over information sharing/advice;

4. There is a need to create “spaces” for dialogue and discussion aimed at collaborative action/initiatives between stakeholders (in particular potential employers, unemployment services, city/national authorities, spouses and professional networks/initiatives and academia/training institutions) towards facilitating the process of integration into the local labour market, while mitigating potential adversities; and finally

5. As observed by KarenLarsen, Co-founder, Thagaconnect, consideration should be given to the fact that the competences of the future may be represented in greater numbers by professionals on the move who may be invisible to human resources and employers craving for talent, but unable to see beyond the non-linear CVs and standardize algorism. Please listen to Karen’s contribution below as a “wake-up call”.

Finally, thanks go to the support of WeWork for hosting the meeting, which made it possible for this event to take place, as well as to all speakers and participants which made this initiative a great gathering, and the beginning of a collaborative process of sharing experiences, learning and most of all of awareness-raising. For more information on the seminar (i.e. agenda and weblinks) please visit the Here we are Brussels page above, and for the video contributions from EUmentorSTEM, Expat Spouses Initiative and Thagaconnectplease visit the Conversations page above. Results from the two surveys presented at the seminar will be published soon and shall be announced on this page.