Over-qualification of immigrants: Inadequacy of brain drain?



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Smaro Pegiou


Over-qualified immigrants in Europe, as well as in many other destination countries around the world, is a phenomenon that needs to be addressed by policy-makers. Evidence suggests that a high number of immigrants bring with them specialized know-how and technical expertise into the host societies which often remain untapped. This leads to believe that the win-win scenario linked to highly-skilled human mobility is in reality often not the case, resulting in a distorted form of brain drain which in turn is not beneficial for the migrant himself, or for the economy of the host society.


Photo taken by Bridget Era Ganguly

Programmes, such as the REALISE project, financed through the European Integration Fund, seek to address this deficiency. Implemented in the framework of the EU 2020 agenda to achieve a dynamic and competitive Europe, REALISE contributes to its objectives by maximizing human capital, and thus targets qualified third-country nationals who are disproportionately overqualified for their jobs. These third-country nationals are holders of professional - occupational post-secondary qualification such as nurses, or teachers – or higher education qualifications. In order to achieve these targets, REALISE creates panels of local key stakeholder, and presents local diagnosis with a view to better understand the underlying causes of over-qualification. It further sets up platforms enabling a wide range of stakeholders to exchange knowledge and is also rolling out pilot local interventions.

“Europe 2020”, the EU strategy for a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy, contains education and training, inter alia, as key elements for achieving economic recovery and enhanced social cohesion. Unfortunately, the phenomenon of an over-qualified population is currently on the rise in Europe, especially among immigrants, young people and women. According to research carried out by Eurostat, the rate of over-qualified foreign-born persons is as high as 34%, compared to 19% for natives. This gap is more severe for non-EU migrants, reaching 36%. In addition, OECD reports confirm that on average 50% of skilled migrants are inactive, unemployed or in jobs for which they are over-qualified. So, what are the reasons encouraging these facts and what are the obstacles that prevent immigrants from finding a job that matches their qualifications?

Let’s take the UK as an example. In 2010 the UK Border Agency found out that despite the fact that almost a third of immigrants are given priority admission due to their highly-skilled qualifications, they still end up working in unskilled jobs. This is especially the case for the Indian born population. Having studied medicine, business administration and other sciences, they nevertheless often work as night time security wards or waiters in fast food restaurants. InCanada, a study called “Who drives a taxi in Canada” found out that 25,000 out of 50,000 cab drivers are immigrants holding university degrees or even PhDs. While they invested several years to become doctors, businessmen and engineers in their countries of origin or abroad, they seem to only necessitate driving and navigation skills for the jobs acquired in the host country. Another example is Norway. 26% of immigrants are over-qualified for their jobs whereas half of this rate applies to ethnic Norwegians. Immigrants, as well as people born in Norway with an immigrant background seem to suffer from discrimination as they do not even get the chance to be called for a job interview due to their non-Norwegian names. The scenario is similar in France, where highly-skilled migrants from North Africa are less likely to find an equivalent highly-skilled job than their native French counterparts. I believe this discrepancy between employment and education produces a great damage at the fiscal level for both, sending and receiving countries, as the potential of highly-skilled immigrants is wasted, and host countries are losing out on skilled labour in sectors where they actually suffer from shortages. Germany seems to be an exception, as immigrants with a background in medicine are likely to find employment according their qualifications. However, Germany fails to apply the same parameters in other sectors, such as engineering which also lacks of a sufficient labour force.




Female immigrants find themselves in an even worse situation. According to OECD statistics, this is the case in Greece and in Italy where the rates of over-qualified female immigrants are as high as 53% and 27% respectively. These examples reflect in my opinion, a mix of discrimination, xenophobia, and a lack of effective communication and matching schemes between origin and host countries. The language barrier is of course a very important issue that seems to have a negative impact on highly-qualified immigrants, preventing them from acquiring the job they were qualified for in the first place.


So how can we deal with the challenge of over-qualification?

One of the most significant factors in harnessing the potential of migrants is the local level of governance.  Local authorities play a pivotal role in facilitating good relations between sending and receiving societies. For example, local authorities could match demand and supply and therefore create in advance a coherent path of migration, i.e. matching qualification with the actual needs in the labour market, from one local area of a country to another. Furthermore, a broad social network along with strong commitment and engagement of key stakeholders is essential. Another important tool is to exchange good practices that proved to be effective. Local authorities could provide targeted services to potential employers who usually know little about the validity of academic or occupational qualifications acquired by immigrants in their country of origin. Dissemination of good practices coupled with evidence-based research would thus help to combat stereotypes and discrimination.

By now, there is a great consent that migration and its challenges should be integrated in the Post-2015 Development Agenda.  Including migration explicitly in the post-2015 agenda and making migration part of the global and national development priorities and goals could go a long way in raising its profile also in national development planning, as well as on the agenda of multilateral and bilateral development agencies. This could be achieved by focusing on the linkages between migration and specific development targets and indicators in the post-2015 development agenda or by mainstreaming migration as a development tool and cross-cutting issue. In line with what has been said up to now, it seems that there is a great need for a stronger global partnership able to address regional labour migration realities, and put in place effective skills development and matching schemes across regions.   Furthermore, the High-level Dialogue on International Migration and Development which will take place again in October 2013 could, inter alia, lay emphasis on the creation of a system for the certification and recognition of skills with the aim to facilitate the process of matching labour supply and demand. Hence, an international and regional skills facility could be established, bringing together a wide range of stakeholders from the public as well as from the private domain. This facility should provide knowledge, financial and technical support for national and regional skills development programmes and facilitate skills certification and recognition. If we don’t bind these elements together as an issue included into the global migration and development agendas we will not be able to promote access to mobility. The negative consequences of missing out on this opportunity would particularly be felt amongst the growing population of young people in developing countries who are searching for better opportunities that actually harness their knowledge, abilities and skills. And of course fulfill their dreams. 


The economic recession across Europe has had an impact in migration with an increasing number of people seeking opportunities in countries of origin – business (self employment) and employment. Lots of organisations are expanding in Africa resulting in more opportunities and increased migration at FindaJobinAfrica.com we have seen new organisations coming into Africa creating opportunities and many more migrants from across Europe making enquiries about returning home. The question of over-qualification has now taken a different dimension as migrants without relevant experience may find it more challenging to secure suitable roles at home

Dr Banjoko