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Harnessing the Value Skilled Migrants Provide

Thursday, May 9, 2024

By Steve Henneberry


Headshot of Mary Zellmer-Bruhn
Professor Mary Zellmer-Bruhn

Migration is one of the world’s oldest realities. In today’s global labor market, which faces workforce shortages, skilled migrants are an essential component.

The value this population, defined as individuals with a bachelor’s degree or equivalent, provides is clear for both nations and firms that take them in. For example, in the U.S., where 28 percent of immigrant inventors were born in either India or China, “a migrant arriving at age 25 with a college degree pays about half a million dollars more in taxes than they consume in government services over their life; the fiscal surplus nears $1 million for migrants with advanced degrees,” according to the National Academies of Science. Further, research shows that in Europe, nearly 20 percent of new employees in growing occupations, such as healthcare and STEM, are immigrants. Despite this, skilled migrants still face immense challenges in their new countries including:

  • being underemployed and underpaid relative to their native-born counterparts;
  • higher threat of job loss in economic downturns; and
  • persistent insecurity about residence permits.

“The benefits are clear, yet skilled migrants continue to encounter so many obstacles,” said Mary Zellmer-Bruhn, professor and associate dean of MBA & MS Programs at the Carlson School. Zellmer-Bruhn and 15 co-authors from 10 countries recently published a paper in the Journal of International Business to identify factors that helped drive skilled migrant retention by increasing their embeddedness in their new country.

Through a comprehensive analysis of 1,709 highly skilled migrants from 48 origin countries living in 12 different destination countries, they explored “contrasting dynamics” of destination and origin country characteristics facing these workers as well as their experiences of these contexts.

“By looking across the globe at these issues, we find some clear areas of focus to foster meaningful connection,” the authors wrote. “By addressing them, countries and firms can benefit more from their skills, which in turn supports economic growth, cultural diversity, and meaningful opportunities for these workers.”

The findings reveal that although destination countries may offer advantages compared to origin countries, such as better opportunities for human development, if skilled migrants experience occupational downgrading due to licensing and credentialing barriers, or feel unwelcoming ethnocentrist attitudes, they are less likely to identify with their new country. This significantly reduces their sense of belonging and success in their new countries.

By focusing on the “embeddedness” of migrants, or how well migrants feel they fit into their new environment in terms of their career and social life, the researchers found those who strongly identify with their destination country are more likely to engage in activities that connect them to the local community and workplace. The authors found that experiencing ethnocentrism was particularly harmful; migrants reporting this retained a strong connection to their origin country and reported significantly lower community embeddedness in their destination country.

Illustrating these complexities reveal directions to improve the migration experience for all involved—the migrants themselves and the firms and nations who provide new opportunities for them. National and local governments should consider revising policies to improve the transferability of credentials, training, and degrees to accelerate labor market access, and firms should nurture supportive work environments and inclusive climates to counteract adverse effects of societal ethnocentrism and downgrading and improve career embeddedness.

This article appeared in the Spring 2024 Discovery magazine

In this issue, Carlson School faculty research addresses inequities in mental health care, the challenges that migrant workers face, inefficiencies in public-private partnerships, and more.

Spring 2024 table of contents