Published on Arab Voices

On the Move: Migrant Skills (Seeing isn’t Believing)

The recent tragedy off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy highlights the risks that many migrants face. For a large number of people around the world moving is still one of the surest ways of expanding their opportunities and improving their lives. The World Bank's International Labor Mobility program has been dedicated to rethinking the current approach to this movement. Our new series, ‘On the Move’ presents new ideas which showcase a sample of this program's approach, with the aim of changing the debate around migration by focusing on ways of promoting the safe movement of people and unlocking its many potential gains.

On the Move: Migrant Skills (Seeing isn’t Believing)In a world where “migration is development,” stepping across international borders would offer migrants immediate improvements in income, productivity, and career opportunities. Currently, however, migrants with mid-level skills must take one step back to take two steps forward. As they cross from developing to developed countries, migrants’ resumes, diplomas and work experience suddenly lose value. To recapture that lost value, mid-skilled migrants must begin their educations and careers anew. Unfortunately, the financial or systemic barriers to starting over often prevent migrants from ever realizing their full potential, resulting in losses for both the migrant and the host country’s economy.

Eager to address this issue of “brain waste,” policymakers have created programs to make migrants’ skills more visible within the host country’s labor market. By awarding diplomas to their graduates, these programs aim to help migrants access the jobs for which they are actually qualified: migrants working as dishwashers can resume careers as auto repairmen, and janitors can begin exploiting their latent construction skills. While some of these programs have succeeded in helping migrants utilize their mid-level skills others have failed. Increasing skill visibility does not necessarily prevent brain waste. In international labor markets, seeing is not believing. For employers to believe in the utility of migrants’ skills, programs must increase the value of those skills.

Over the course of the past year, the World Bank’s International Labor Mobility (ILM) Program in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service came together to do a deep dive into three migration and skill development programs:  the Filipino migration regime, the Australia-Pacific Technical College, and a Mexican program called Plazas Comunitarias. This analysis revealed how programs can prevent brain waste by creating skill value, and extracted key lessons from international experience that can inform similar efforts in the MENA region. Further research underscored the applicability of these lessons to the region, identifying how the health sector in France might benefit from mid-skilled migration from MENA. In a nutshell, this is what we learnt from this deep dive:

  1. To create skill value, training programs must demonstrate to employers in target industries that program graduates have the skills required by the host country labor market. Programs must also ensure that the migration and employment frameworks within the target country will permit migrants to utilize those skills.
  2. To fulfill these requirements, program administrators should cultivate functional, symbiotic partnerships with foreign employers and migrant support organizations. Employers and migrant support organizations should identify the vocational and socio-cultural skills that migrants will need to succeed in the host country labor market, recruit migrants from the training program, and provide feedback on the efficacy of the program’s skill development processes.
  3. Through these partnerships, programs should align the regulatory frameworks that govern skill development, employment, and migration in the host and sending countries. By merging institutional contexts, programs can elevate training criteria, industry standards, and migration policy in both countries to the highest common denominator, whether or not migration occurs.
  4. Policy alignment within these three arenas requires an open design in which programs automatically and frequently solicit input from all labor market actors—industry associations, employers, migrants, and policymakers. Program administrators must develop strategic relationships with the most relevant actors and offer constant incentives for programs to adapt. It is critical that programs incorporate feedback to stay in tune with market needs.
  5. As migration and labor are highly politicized fields, one of the most important sources of information for administrators will be political pressures. Program administrators should accept the role of politics in altering programs’ goals and designs. Administrators should also be prepared to emphasize the short-term goal of skill development when the long-term goal of migration for employment becomes politically contentious.

The ILM program in the MENA region is trying to facilitate coordination between countries receiving immigrants and those sending them. One of our goals is to reduce brain waste through the creation of portable skill value that can cross international borders.  This issue is getting a lot of resonance in this region where the emigration rate of 5.5 percent is twice the global average and over nine percent of the population with university degrees lives abroad. Given the proximity of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, which includes some of the largest migrant receiving countries in the world, and looming labor shortages in their European neighbors, MENA countries—and their migrants—stand to reap tremendous benefits from the creation of transferable skill value. As part of our efforts to achieve this goal, we have posted the draft report on our webpage and encourage you to send us your comments and engage with us in this important conversation.


Casey Weston

Migration Specialist

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