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Joint ILO MPI reports

Many immigrants in Europe struggling to move out of low-skilled jobs; European governments have opportunities to prioritize policies to secure upward mobility

18 November 2014

WASHINGTON and GENEVA — Against a backdrop of aging populations and persistently low economic growth, few European governments are doing enough to help recent immigrants move from low-skilled precarious jobs and into decent work, says a new report by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) and International Labour Organization (ILO).

The report, Aiming Higher: Policies to Get Immigrants into Middle-Skilled Work in Europe, shows that while some countries have made sizeable investments in labour market integration policies over the past decade, they have focused primarily on getting immigrants into work. As a result, these policies have struggled to facilitate career progression over time.

Europe’s demographic prospects make clear that countries can ill afford to squander the potential of their residents"
“Europe’s demographic prospects make clear that countries can ill afford to squander the potential of their residents — wherever they come from,” said MPI President Emeritus Demetrios G. Papademetriou. “While some countries have given significant priority to labour market integration policy in recent years, much less attention has been paid to the quality of their jobs, and immigrant progression into middle- and high-skilled work lags substantially.”

“As our findings demonstrate, despite some promising innovations in some countries there is clearly no quick fix to the problem of immigrants stuck in low-skilled work or unemployment,” said Christiane Kuptsch of the ILO. “However, strengthening employment and migration policy coherence could yield significant benefits for migrant workers, employers and labour markets.”

The employment gaps between native and foreign-born workers not only persist but have widened since the onset of the global economic crisis, with particularly significant effects on women, migrants who come on a visa other than a work visa and immigrants from outside the European Union.

While Europe has experienced considerable immigration over the last 25 years from within and beyond the continent, a majority of immigrants were not selected for their skills and instead arrived through humanitarian channels or as part of family reunification. Many who came with sought-after skills found work with ease, particularly during the economic boom of the mid-2000s. But many newcomers have struggled to progress out of the lowest-skilled jobs into stable, middle-skilled positions, in some cases despite having substantial qualifications and experience.

The report is the result of a research initiative that was carried out by MPI in collaboration with the ILO and with funding from the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion. It examines the labour market progression of recent immigrants in six EU countries (Czech Republic, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom) and analyzes policies related to integration and workforce development, with a focus on public employment services and language and vocational training.

The publication sketches the difficulty foreign-born workers face in gaining a secure foothold in the labour market during their first decade after arrival, with many experiencing lengthy periods of unemployment, inactivity or stagnation in low-skilled work.

Written by analysts Meghan Benton, Madeleine Sumption, Kristine Alsvik, Susan Fratzke, Kuptsch and Papademetriou, the report also examines strategies to address the labour market integration of immigrant workers in Europe—including programmes targeted directly at immigrants and mainstream services available to the whole population.

While targeted programmes allow policymakers to design services for new arrivals’ specific needs, including orientation and job coaching, they are often small in scale and focus on particular groups (such as refugees or family immigrants). As a result, they run the risk of excluding many others with similar needs. Some countries have thus turned to mainstream institutions, such as public employment services and training institutions, to provide more inclusive services at a greater scale, the research finds.

Public employment services could be a vehicle for connecting recently arrived workers with employers and providing career development and retraining advice. This potential, however, has not been realized in the countries studied. Employment advisors are often over-stretched and don’t have the required specialized training or resources to meet immigrants’ specific needs. Some countries also lack the capacity to provide long-term career development or to provide in-work support to immigrants who are employed but stuck in the least-skilled jobs.

The design of vocational and language strategies that address migrants’ skills needs is a difficult but necessary task. Training is no panacea, as employers are not always willing or able to promote participants into more skilled jobs after they gain new skills. Nonetheless, training holds a great deal of promise to reduce gaps in language fluency, basic skills and technical expertise as well as the acquisition of soft skills, the authors conclude.

The report offers a series of recommendations for policymakers to consider, including:
  • Improving the incentives for public employment agencies to serve the needs of migrants and developing a better-trained and/or more specialized workforce of advisors to provide both short- and longer-term career advice — rather than focusing exclusively on getting people to work as quickly as possible in any job.
  • Funding partnerships between employers and training institutions to assist employers willing to facilitate language instruction or support apprenticeships and work experience programmes.
  • Improving the coordination of policies enacted at federal, state and local levels, and promoting common goals, information sharing and mutual accountability for integration outcomes.
  • More effective evaluation of innovative labour market integration programmes and monitoring of their impacts over the long-term.
Read the country case studies and other reports in the 14-report research series.

The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, DC dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) is the specialized agency of the United Nations which is mandated to establish international labour standards and has worked for the advancement of social justice since 1919.

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