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New research on skilled migration sheds light on an overheated debate

Launched today, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research’s report,  Migration and productivity: employers’ practices, public attitudes and statistic evidence explores the long term relationship between migration and productivity. Dr Heather Rolfe discusses the research findings.


While the debate rages over the service impacts of migration from the EU, it’s business as usual for UK employers who recruit migrants to fill skills gaps and to get the expertise and talent they need. New NIESR research, carried out with funding from the Barrow Cadbury Trust, takes an in-depth look at why they do this, and at the views of the general public who work with migrants. It finds a more positive picture than is often painted.


Re-focusing the debate on the real issue of economic migration


The current debate about migration, in the political arena and in policy and research communities, has focused on the short term impacts on labour markets, public services and public finances. These have taken centre stage in recent Government announcements and policy plans, fuelled by perceptions of public opinion on migration and concerns about the potential impact of any future migration from new EU member states. With less than two months now to January 2014 when UK borders will fully open to Romanians and Bulgarians, debates have centred on service use and abuse, with claims of ‘health tourism’ and ‘benefit tourism’.  You might be forgiven for thinking that no-one comes to the UK as a real tourist anymore.


A new report from NIESR moves the spotlight away from service impacts back to the main driver of migration, which is economic. The research looks specifically at skilled migration, a key issue for employers. The research also finds interest among the general public in issues of skills and migration, despite the heated debate over benefits, services and ‘crowding out’ of low skilled occupations.


Why recruit skilled migrants?


Employers across the four sectors of Pharmaceuticals, IT, Higher Education and Finance, gave three main reasons for recruiting from outside the UK: where the supply of skills from within the UK is inadequate; to recruit high level skills which are in short supply world-wide; and to complement the skills of non-migrants. This was at odds with the perceptions of focus group participants drawn from the general public: they saw cost issues as a key factor in why employers recruit migrants while these were less important than other factors for employers when recruiting for skilled posts.


One of the reasons for this disparity comes from the perception of a migrant worker. For the general public, this conjured up an image of an Eastern European in low skilled, low paid work. This was very much at odds with the views of employers who, while recruiting at different skill levels, saw skilled migration as most important in meeting their needs. When focus group participants reflected on it, they realised that the migrants they worked alongside were from a wide range of backgrounds and brought valued skilled and experiences to their teams.


While concerned about unskilled migration, focus group participants immediately understood the need for skilled migration. This was apparent even among participants who were generally opposed to immigration. However, while accepting that overseas recruitment is necessary where specialist posts are difficult to fill, focus group participants also believed that skills shortages result from an unwillingness to work among some sections of the UK population. They also believed that young people are ill-prepared for employment, and lack technical and employability skills. But what did they think should be done? They believed that the UK education system and individuals themselves need to change so that the UK born do not lose out in the jobs market.


Focus group participants were also concerned that some talented and motivated young British people might be losing out where employers recruit migrants instead of locals. Some felt it has become easy for employers to recruit ready-trained and experienced employees and that training is disincentivised. Employers said this was not what they do, they don’t recruit migrants as a substitute for training in the skills they need. This suggests that employers need to convey more clearly to the public the investment they make in the training and development of UK recruits. They may also need to be more vocal about the need to recruit from outside the UK, although in the current political climate, this is unlikely to make them popular.


For employers, skilled migrants are often not substitutes for natives, but bring additional skills which enhance non-migrants’ skills and enhance the business. A number of employers said they need people who can ‘think global’, who have a perspective on and understanding of the international nature of the business. Focus group participants recognised that employers need this outlook in their employees and felt that the UK born now need to ‘up their game’ as labour markets become increasingly global.


Migration has benefits for British employees and teams


Employers believe that the different experiences and perspectives of migrants create teams with different strengths and make workplaces more dynamic places to be. The report includes a number of examples of how employers benefit from the perspectives and approaches of UK born and migrant employees. These benefits were readily acknowledged by focus group participants who talked about how they had benefited from working with people from different backgrounds and with different perspectives and approaches. They also saw benefits to end users of services, for example in health and social work. At the same time, they were uneasy about all-migrant teams. There was particular concern where this was seen to result from networking among migrants or discriminatory recruitment practices.


Diverse teams were also seen to sometimes bring challenges, for example misunderstandings arising from language barriers and cultural differences. These challenges were also reported by employers, but were generally felt by both employers and focus group participants to be relatively minor and outweighed by the benefits.


The research findings bring some light to an overheated debate and will be welcomed by employers and employees whose own experiences don’t accord with current rhetoric around the threat of economic migration.


Dr Heather Rolfe is a Principal Research Fellow at NIESR. You can read the report in full here.