The developmental impact of the highly-skilled: developed urban societies of destination

It is axiomatic that the destinations of skilled migrants benefit from that migration. The concentration of people with brains and abilities brings economies of scale and the exchange of knowledge stimulates enterprise. These developments are most clearly seen in the process of urbanisation. No highly developed country' remains primarily rural and cities have always provided the seat for religious and secular elites and for that quintessential skilled migrant: the trader. The wealth created through these ‘trading diasporas’ (Cohen 1997; Curtin 1984) was used to extend the power of the city, projected so often in great architecture but also in the creation of industry that required and attracted more skilled migrants and the establishment of schools and universities to create the skilled, particularly the political and administrative elites. Cities have been for centuries, but particularly since the onset of rapid urbanisation from the early eighteenth century, the nodes for the accumulation and interchange of skilled people and the centres around which states were created.

Today, the largest cities in destination countries remain the principal destinations for international migration, both skilled and less-skilled. As emphasised earlier, government policy across the developed world favours the skilled and here the issue of retention arises. The skilled are not only in demand globally, but they see migration as part of their career development. Skills are enhanced through experience in different contexts and the skilled are characterised by high mobility and much onward and return migration. The expatriate population in Hong Kong includes a significant number of the skilled and their migration experience is instructive. Between 2001 and 2011, only half of the 440,000 expatriates in the city in 2001 ‘survived’ to be recorded in 2011 and some 310,000 new expatriates arrived (Skeldon 2014). Hence, a significant turnover in that population in Hong Kong existed but whether such a pattern exists in other global cities must await further research. Nevertheless, it would be naïve for governments wishing to attract the skilled through manpower planning in order to fill specific vacancies in the labour force to assume that all will stay on. Those trained to global standards will tend to migrate globally, a theme to which we shall return in this chapter.

Governments that bias their immigration policy towards the highly-skilled may find that they attract more skilled than they have available and appropriate jobs for them. Accounts of PhD holders driving taxis in Canada are legendary and it is easy to exaggerate the real situation. Nevertheless, among the more than 50,000 taxi drivers in Canada as a whole in 2006, half were immigrants of whom fully one fifth had a first degree or higher, including some 200 with PhDs, compared with just under 5 per cent of Canadian-born drivers with university degrees, of whom 55 had PhDs (Li 2012). Over 80 per cent of the taxi drivers in Toronto and Vancouver were immigrants, with the vast majority established migrants rather than new arrivals, suggesting that taxi driving is not a temporary job on the way to something better.

This situation of highly-skilled migrants in less qualified occupations has given rise to the idea of a ‘brain waste’ amongst skilled migrants in the developed world. However, three points need to be taken into consideration. First is the complex issue of accreditation: whether the training received by an immigrant, particularly in professions such as medicine, architecture, or engineering, meets the criteria of the destination country. Certainly, professional associations may have vested interests in limiting the numbers admitted into their ranks, but standards are important and it may take time to establish equivalency. Immigrants established in their fields back home may not have the time, finance, or inclination to return to education to complete bridging courses in order to gain local qualifications. Second, from the point of view of the destination country, skilled migrants irrespective of what they do, make ‘good’ immigrants: they are more likely to pick up the local language quickly, to adjust to a different society and culture and to have high aspirations for their children, who may be able to achieve what they themselves have been unable to achieve. Third, is the more general issue of overqualification of tertiary-trained workers in labour forces in general in the developed world: across OECD countries, an average of 14 per cent of those with university education are in occupations that do not require such a high level of education, a percentage that rises to 28 per cent in the United Kingdom and 29 per cent in Japan. See OECD (2018, 77) and The Telegraph Education of 19 September 2018 for introductions to this issue. While such data might raise questions about the direct relevance of a university education to many, a more charitable interpretation might see an educated population as both a public good and a basic human right and feel that we need to move away from narrow associations between education and type of occupation. Basic questions remain about ‘who pays?’ but this takes the discussion far beyond the theme of this entry. Nevertheless, central to a migration and development debate remains the question who makes the ‘best’ immigrants for host societies: whether ‘best’ for future state-building or ‘best’ for filling places in the labour market, or even whether this is a false dichotomy entirely. When selecting these skilled immigrants, developed economies rarely take into consideration the impact that the selection has on the countries of origin and it is to that issue that our attention now turns.

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