close
close
Skip to main content
Lasque Tiarc

The ‘brain waste’ of skilled migrants in Europe

Vaseline 2 months ago

Livia Umbelino, 32, trained as a social worker in her native Rio de Janeiro, learning the methods, skills and responsibilities of supporting and improving people’s lives. But after emigrating to Ireland five years ago, she is still unable to work in the job she trained for, as her qualifications are not recognised by local officials.

Livia Umbelino, 32, trained as a social worker in her native Rio de Janeiro, learning the methods, skills and responsibilities of supporting and improving people’s lives. But after emigrating to Ireland five years ago, she is still unable to work in the job she trained for, as her qualifications are not recognised by local officials.

Instead, she has found work as a healthcare assistant in nursing homes and recently took a job working on health and safety protocols for Intel, the US chipmaker. “I just see it as a temporary job,” she says. “It’s not what I want for me, but it’s OK.”

Umbelino’s experience is typical of the many migrant graduates in Europe suffering from a phenomenon often referred to as “brain waste”: either finding themselves overqualified for their new jobs, working fewer hours than they would like or, for some, spending time unemployed.

A joint investigation led by Lighthouse Reports with the FT, El País and Unbias the News shows that most European countries are failing to provide good job opportunities for highly educated migrants, at a potentially significant cost to their labour forces and economies.

The findings, which are based on data from the EU’s labour force survey between 2017 and 2022, show that nearly half of all migrants with degrees work in roles they are overqualified for, compared with less than a third of natives. Despite widespread demand for highly skilled migrant labour, migrants with degrees are also unemployed at nearly double the rate of natives.

It comes at a cost: the investigation found that on average, European migrant graduates earn €2,000 less each year than native graduates with similar degrees and characteristics. Excluding the UK, Germany and Nordic economies — for which data is not available — this amounts to €10.7bn in lost wages, or 0.12 per cent of the countries’ combined GDP.

“The ‘brain waste’ of migrants is a real problem for European governments”, says Friedrich Poeschel, senior research fellow at the Migration Policy Centre of the European University Institute.

“Can highly skilled migrants apply their skills and build a career, or do they become frustrated and leave? In the worst case, some end up long-term unemployed and dependent on welfare, which policymakers obviously seek to avoid. They want migrants to fill shortages in specific occupations.”

The investigation found that levels of brain waste vary greatly across Europe, with Italy, Greece, Spain and Sweden performing particularly badly.

Analysis of the situation for skilled migrants in Ireland, Portugal and Sweden offers a glimpse of how labour market outcomes differ as opportunities and barriers vary in host countries.

Teachers are just one example of the type of highly skilled worker that European countries badly need more of, with low pay and burnout leaving many countries struggling to recruit and retain teaching staff.

Despite this, over half of all migrants in Europe with a teaching or education-related degree are not working in the sector. Almost all of the countries included in the investigation had high levels of brain waste for those with teaching degrees, particularly when compared with natives.

One such example is Katie, a pre-school teacher from the US. Armed with a masters degree in early childhood education, and two decades of experience, Katie moved to south-west Ireland last August with her Irish partner and primary school-age daughter.

Eight months after arriving, she is working as a nanny, as she continues to battle what she calls “nit-picking” and “tedious” bureaucracy in order to get her qualifications validated.

So far, Katie has managed to overcome just one hurdle — getting a Teaching Council number, which she says is a requirement for a primary school post, but only valid for her to work as a substitute teacher. Her efforts to have her qualifications recognised have so far proved fruitless.

“Officials kept emailing me back and nit-picking because I had an assistant principal as a reference, not a principal — they said that didn’t count unless she had a (Irish) Teaching Council number. Well she doesn’t, because she’s from another country.” Correspondence, she adds, “required a school stamp, but that’s not really a thing in America”.

In Ireland, where almost two-thirds of secondary schools surveyed by the Teachers’ Union of Ireland have unfilled vacancies, qualified teachers from overseas face a far trickier path to the classroom than natives with equivalent degrees. This class of migrant is three times more likely to be working in a role they are overqualified for and at least five times less likely to be working in the teaching profession at all.

“I heard on the radio that they can’t figure out why they can’t get substitute teachers, they’re so needed,” Katie says. “They’re making it very difficult for qualified — overqualified — people from other countries to do that work.”

While some barriers are specific to those wanting to teach in Ireland — Katie says she still needs to complete a religious studies qualification and take an Irish language course in order to teach in Catholic primary schools — the pattern plays out in other European countries, including in Austria, Italy and the Netherlands.

Lack of recognition for foreign qualifications does not only impact teachers: the investigation found that across all degree subjects and in almost all countries, immigrants who were educated abroad had substantially worse labour market outcomes than immigrants educated in their host country.

Those who manage to get recognition are also far more likely to then find a job that reflects their skills: while 39 per cent of migrant graduates who have sought and received recognition for their degrees end up being overqualified for their role, this rises to 56 per cent for those migrants who have not.

For now, Katie will continue nannying, but she hopes to return to the classroom for the next academic year. “I’m allowed to live here, I’m technically allowed to work here, but not to the level of my professional background. I could maybe get a job at a shop or a café, but I want to work in my field.”

Not every country suffers from brain waste to the same degree. Four years ago, Thaissa Santos embarked on a new chapter of her life when she arrived in Portugal with her husband and son.

In her native Brazil, she had studied dentistry at university and specialised in paediatrics. Unlike most Brazilians emigrating to Europe and the US, her motivation was not financial but “mainly family issues”, so that she could be around to help her parents who had retired in Portugal.

In order to continue working as a dentist, Santos says she first needed to complete a year-long masters at a Portuguese university that would ensure the equivalence of her dentistry degree. She says she then needed to apply for a licence from the Dentists’ Association, which took a further three months.

As soon as she had her licence in hand, Santos found dentistry jobs in Portugal easy to come by. “I started sending out résumés and had several offers, (so) I chose the one closest to home,” she says.

Success stories for highly educated migrants like Santos are more common in Portugal than elsewhere on the continent. The investigation found that in western Europe’s poorest country, college-educated migrants are less likely to find themselves overqualified, underemployed or unemployed than across Europe as a whole.

Portugal’s relative success is even starker when compared with other southern European countries. More than half of immigrants with degrees in Spain, Italy and Greece work in jobs where they are overqualified compared with Portugal, where 39 per cent have a higher level of education than is typical for their occupation.

There is also much greater parity between migrant and native graduates in Portugal than the rest of southern Europe. The most common jobs among migrants with degrees in Portugal mirror that of native graduates, with teaching, nursing, engineering and finance roles topping the lists. This is in stark contrast with Spain, Italy and Greece where migrant graduates are far more likely to be found working as cleaners and cashiers.

Portugal also stands out as a promising destination for migrants with technical degrees. Compared with the rest of southern Europe, migrants with degrees in science, computing and maths have a much greater chance of working in a job suitable for their qualifications and at a rate that is comparable with native graduates.

Sinem Yilmaz at Migration Policy Group puts this down to policies encouraging global tech entrepreneurs to base their start-ups in the country, including favourable business regulations and resident permits for investors and businesspeople.

“Portugal knows how to make the most of its highly skilled migrant population and its focus on the tech industry and entrepreneurship has been an important part of its economic recovery since the financial crisis. These are sectors with flexible job markets that can accommodate highly skilled people with diverse qualifications and backgrounds,” she says.

Yilmaz adds that supportive policies have further created an atmosphere where “NGOs and civil society organisations are proactive and create lots of networking opportunities for migrants — there’s a very visible start-up scene, especially in Lisbon.”

Language is likely to also play a role in Portugal’s success. Like Santos, many of Portugal’s immigrants already speak fluent Portuguese, with a large share migrating from Brazil and lusophone Africa.

Yet Spain and France — both with large immigrant populations that speak the native language — tend to perform much worse than Portugal when it comes to levels of overqualification, underemployment and unemployment among migrant graduates.

A significant factor has been the Portuguese government’s recognition of the benefits that migrant workers bring to the economy, Yilmaz says, and national policies that support them, from free language training to mentoring programmes and courses in entrepreneurship.

“They not only have a plan, but they execute it and try to improve it,” Yilmaz says. “This is really good practice that we cannot see for the majority of European countries when it comes to integration.”

While government support for migrant labour market integration is a necessary first step, Yilmaz emphasises it is not enough on its own. “Anti-discrimination policies matter. Value of multiculturalism matters,” she says. “Policies won’t work if you don’t have a comprehensive approach.”

Despite the recent rise of the far-right Chega party, immigrants working in Portugal face less hostility than they might elsewhere on the continent. An EU-wide survey in 2021 found that 73 per cent of Portuguese people felt that the integration of immigrants in their local area was successful, well above the EU average of 42 per cent.

For Santos, she has never felt any particular difficulty or discrimination for being a foreigner at Clínica de Santa Madalena, the practice where she works on the outskirts of Lisbon. “I am very happy where I work”, she says.

A major factor in levels of brain waste is migrant status. The investigation found that asylum seekers experience far higher levels of brain waste than the average college-educated immigrant.

This is a particular challenge for the countries bearing the brunt of the continent’s growing refugee population, like Sweden. The country’s total number of refugees has nearly doubled in the past 10 years, and in 2022 it was hosting 265 refugees for every 10,000 people living there, compared with the EU average of 150.

Despite some obvious strengths — having the second highest naturalisation rate in the EU and strong migrant integration policies — in Sweden, college-educated migrants are around three times more likely to be unemployed if they arrived for humanitarian, rather than economic, reasons.

There are many reasons why this is the case there, and across Europe. Many countries prohibit asylum seekers from working until several months after arrival — some until a decision has been reached on their application — meaning they spend a significant amount of time out of the labour market.

Providing evidence of degrees and certificates is also more challenging for those who have fled their home country, where institutions may no longer be functioning.

When a migrant’s primary motivation is safety and security, they are also less likely to have transferable skills for their host country, particularly when it comes to speaking the language.

Poor host-country language skills has a double drawback: as well as limiting employability, it also reduces the chance of building potentially advantageous contacts with natives. In Sweden, college-educated migrants are three times more likely to be unemployed if they have poor Swedish language skills compared with those with a good level of proficiency.

Stigma and racism can further disadvantage these migrants. Research done by Nahikari Irastorza and Pieter Bevelander from Malmö University found that regardless of education level, the most disadvantaged migrant groups were always “immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, most of whom enter Sweden as asylum seekers”.

The investigation found a similar trend across most European countries: migrants from the so-called global south (Africa, Asia and Latin and Central America) are more affected by brain waste than those from higher-income countries. One outlier is Portugal, where migrants from the global south — including those who speak the native language — are less likely to be overqualified and underemployed than those from richer countries.

Portugal’s relative success in harnessing the skills of its educated migrants appears to have inspired some of the EU’s current strategy for migrant integration, which has made easier recognition of qualifications a priority, along with supporting entrepreneurship.

If changes are not made, highly skilled migrants like Umbelino will continue to spend years in jobs that are “completely different” to what they have been trained for. Umbelino has not given up validating her social work qualifications. “It’s quite difficult . . . But once my application (is approved), I’ll try to get a job in my field, for sure.”