Skilled migration has been one of the principal academic and policy concerns in both research and debate on migration and development. Developed countries view the skilled as necessary for their continued competitiveness in a globalised world. Virtually all developed counties wish to attract and retain skilled migrants, while at the same time restricting the inflow of the less-skilled. Given this global diffusion of skilled migration policies, a so-called global competition for the best and brightest has emerged (Czaika 2018, 2; OECD 2008). However, important regional dimensions are also significant with, for example, the number of skilled migrants from Western countries in Japan having decreased over recent years, but the number of skilled migrants from other Asian countries having increased (Wakisaka 2018). Cultural practices, as well as propinquity, are factors in the equation.
Less-developed countries, on the other hand, view the emigration of their skilled to the more developed world with concern, fearing that their loss will prejudice their own development. Issues of brain drain, brain gain, and brain circulation have been important parts of the research and debate but the real impact on both origins and destinations has proved to be more complex and nuanced than these simple categories might suggest. This entry will review the main dimensions of the debate, a debate that can be traced back into the 1960s. (See Adams (1968), for example, but more recent overall reviews and assessments include those by Czaika (2018), Solimano (2008), Part II of Ozden and Schiff (2006), Cornelius, Espenshade, and Salehyan (2001), Clemens (2013) and Skeldon (2009).)
Of definitions and categories
Central to the debate is a definition of the skilled, who can be defined in a number of ways, with those ways differing from country to country. Data availability is thus crucial and, at the global level, the most readily accessible information across countries relates to the highest level of education completed. In the seminal work of Docquier and Marfouk (2006), for example, the population 25 years of age and over with a tertiary-level qualification, disaggregated by migrant status, was deemed to be skilled. While providing an invaluable assessment of the movement of human capital around the world, it provided but a partial picture of the migration of the skilled. To include those currently in higher education as a measure of the creation of skills adds a further dimension by extending the age range to include younger people: the future skilled.
In the context of a total global international migration stock of 221.7 million in 2010, some 28 million highly-skilled, defined as those 25 years of age with at least 1 year of tertiary education, were recorded in the OECD countries, a 130 per cent increase over the number recorded in 1990 (Kerr et al. 2016, 85). The same source showed that the number of less-skilled migrants increased by only 40 per cent over the same period. The United States was by far the dominant destination for the highly-skilled, with over 12 million in 2010-11, followed by Canada and the United Kingdom with between 3 and 4 million each (Czaika and Parsons 2018, 21-2). India was the main supplier of the skilled with 2.2 million, followed by the Philippines and China, both supplying 1.5 million, the United Kingdom with 1.3 million and Germany with 1.2 million (World Bank 2016). Definitions may vary' between countries but the overall trend seems robust.
For the majority of the most developed OECD countries, however, much more detailed data are generally available. Both stocks and flows of migrants can be disaggregated by profession with the top three categories of the ISCO (International Standard Classification of Occupations) assumed to be ‘highly-skilled’. See Czaika and Parsons (2018, 23) for a review. These incorporate the following:
- • Managers, senior officials, and legislators
- • Professionals, such as doctors, engineers
- • Technicians and associate technicians
Although not all in the first and third of these categories should be assumed to have a university education, these categories are generally occupations associated with a tertiary-level education. Many will have entered large organisations straight from school and worked their way up through the system on the basis of competence and/or influence. As not all who go to university emerge with a skill as such, further disaggregation can be achieved through focussing only on those who had followed courses in technical and scientific subjects, producing Human Resources in Science and Technology (HRST, see OECD 2002).
The focus on these high-level occupations and tertiary-level qualifications does exclude some who are clearly skilled, such as leading sportsmen and women, as well as many artists and musicians. Provision is often made for their inclusion, but questions might also be raised about whether all in the high-level occupations are really ‘skilled’: many certainly are, but not all. All, however, will tend to be highly paid. Many who have business or entrepreneurial acumen and left school early or lower-paid workers without tertiary-level qualifications who possess technical skills in plumbing or carpentry are excluded using such approaches. Hence, the basic comparative data available, that is, the numbers with tertiary education, tend to exclude many who are skilled but probably also include some who are not so skilled. Nevertheless, a basic positive association between advanced levels of education, professional occupations, and levels of remuneration generally holds.
The emergence of a distinction between the ‘highly-skilled’, sometimes also called ‘talent’, to refer to those at the higher end of the spectrum, as opposed to the just ‘skilled’ tries to deal with this relative difference. Certainly, in country-specific, as opposed to regional and global comparative, approaches to the skilled, provision is made for a broad spectrum of skills. For example, the United Kingdom’s Tier 2 visa for skilled workers includes occupations such as nurses, chefs, and dancers that are not generally seen to involve high-level skills. Like the Canadian points-based system, these are identified by, and shift with, observable labour-market shortages. However, matching real labour-market needs with supply through immigration policies is extremely complex and plagued with difficulty (see the essays in Ruhs and
Anderson 2010), not the least of which is due to labour-market needs moving faster than any immigration policy response. Sponsorship by employers, in the case of the United Kingdom, is one example that does attempt to link demand with supply. The evidence of high earnings that has to be produced prior to application limits the migrants to those at high levels or to an origin in a relatively high-cost economy. Investors and entrepreneurs tend fall into other visa categories, Tier 1 in the case of the UK.
The focus on the skilled or the highly-skilled and talented ignores the very real linkages that exist between these migrants and the less-skilled, an issue that throws into question the validity of identifying the skilled as the cornerstone of any immigration policy. The skilled require battalions of less-skilled to service their economy and lifestyles. Quite apart from the construction workers required to build the office complexes, many of whom will be skilled in one trade or another in their own right, it is the service workers who are central to the skilled system: office and window cleaners, delivery drivers, dishwashers, and serving staff in the up-market restaurants in and around the business districts and so on. They must either come from the local population or be imported. Given the rising expectations and education of local populations, it seems unlikely that they will be willing to supply the large number of basic service workers required. Hence, a policy that focuses simply on the highly-skilled seems short-sighted and a more balanced approach is needed.