Is Europe missing out on foreign talent?

Labour market shortages in high-skilled sectors, demographic changes and constant pressure to innovate have prompted governments around the world to engage in a global competition for talent. In this context, the regional factor has become increasingly important, as governments seek to activate all policy instruments in the race for the ‘best and brightest’.

This is certainly the case in Europe.

In the most recent calculations, the European Commission estimated that Europe would need between 384,000 and 700,000 workers in the information and communication technology sector by 2015, and one million healthcare professionals by 2020.

Unsurprisingly, we saw the European Commission opening its July 2013 communication on “European higher education in the world” with the title “Europe and the Global Race for Talent”. This reference set up the scenario that, unless attractive measures are in place, Europe might lose out.

In the light of the ongoing financial and economic crisis shaking the foundations of the European Union (EU), how is Europe faring in terms of being an attractive destination for foreign talent?

Implementing the EU Scientific Visa and Blue Card

The EU is said to be lagging behind countries such as Australia, Canada, Switzerland and the United States in terms of its share of high-skilled migrant workers in the total employed population.

To remedy this gap, it adopted the Scientific Visa and the Blue Card in 2005 and 2009 respectively.

The Scientific Visa, now being recast (with revision anticipated for 2016), was explicitly formulated to attract top scientists and researchers – the highly educated – to Europe. In comparison, the Blue Card was designed to expedite the entry of foreign professionals – the highly qualified.

The results so far have showed that some 7,000 Scientific Visas were issued in 2011, which fell short of the ‘one million researchers’ target the European Commission estimated to be necessary for the EU to become the ‘most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world’ by 2020.

Official figures for the Blue Card are not yet available, but we know that Germany, for example, issued 8,880 Blue Cards within the first 11 months of its implementation – although at least a third of those permits were allocated to people already living there.

This is telling with regard to the overall effect of the Blue Card because Germany, since the retreat of the UK as a front-runner, is considered by the OECD in 2013 to be one of the most open EU countries for its high-skilled migration regime.

What we can conclude is that, numerically, the Scientific Visa and the Blue Card have yet to act as powerful magnets of global talent for Europe as a whole. And why is that?

The ‘migration’ vs ‘scientific’ frame

In our study of how the Scientific Visa and the Blue Card were framed, we found that the final adopted legislation projected a strong ‘migration frame’, which emphasises the importance of robust border control and the deterrence of any unwanted migration.

This was in contrast to how the Scientific Visa and Blue Card were originally presented by the European Commission through the ‘scientific excellence frame’ and the ‘competitiveness frame’ respectively.

We believe that the ‘migration frame’ has contributed to the relative unattractiveness of these two EU talent migration measures by, for instance, being less generous in terms of the rights offered to admitted high-skilled migrants.

Even so, when we look more closely at national policies, we see member states applying their own strategies to attract the ‘best and brightest’ independent of EU-level efforts. But are they in any way more successful?

Tilting the talent balance – From Europe to Asia

In another recent study we compared the German and Singaporean talent migration regimes to determine their relative attractiveness for high-skilled migrants.

We applied the Highly-Skilled Immigration Index developed by Lucie Cerna and found Singaporean policies to be more competitive, or attractive, than German ones on several dimensions, notably the conditions attached to labour market tests.

This is interesting, given that our findings took into consideration the most recent and projected policy changes in Singapore. The Singaporean government, long known to enjoy a free hand in liberalising its talent migration policy, has introduced more stringent measures in foreign talent recruitment following strong pressure from its citizens to do so – ‘Singapore for Singaporeans’.

What our detailed comparison revealed is that, most importantly, a liberal policy on paper may not necessarily ensure that a destination is attractive for potential high-skilled migrants.

Many other factors play a crucial role, including low tax rates and breaks for foreign workers, processing time for applications, language, a welcoming environment in the host country, a standardised and clear process for the recognition of foreign qualifications, and family reunification rights (for immediate and extended family members).

Arguably, national legal traditions offer opportunities or place constraints on governments’ ability to manoeuvre across multiple policy areas, and we found the latter to be the case in Germany.

The current financial crisis, as others have argued, has opened up a critical juncture in European cooperation. In such an instance, existing constraints also point to windows of opportunity that may not be available in ‘ordinary’ times.

Entrepreneurial governments may seize these rare moments to get ahead in the global race for talent. After all, governments competing for the ‘best and brightest’ – through multi-level strategies – still need to provide a corresponding comprehensive package to would-be migrants to fully entice them.

* Lucie Cerna is an analyst in the Directorate for Education and Skills at the OECD and research associate in the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) in Oxford. Meng-Hsuan Chou is Nanyang assistant professor in public policy and global affairs at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Their forthcoming publications include “The Regional Dimension in the Global Competition for Talent: Lessons from framing the European Scientific Visa and Blue Card”, in the Journal of European Public Policy, and “Tilting the Talent Balance: From Europe to Asia – Germany and Singapore in comparison” with BAMF Press. The Highly-Skilled Immigration Index is discussed extensively in “The EU Blue Card: Preferences, policies and negotiations between member states”, Migration Studies (2013). They spoke at the recent Hedda conference on ‘Europe of Knowledge’.