The global mobility of skilled workers – lessons for Sweden

The international mobility of skilled workers has become a crucial component in the process of innovation, scientific discovery and technology transfer. This study summarizes some recent findings based on global bilateral migration databases developed by the OECD and the World Bank. It also highlights findings especially relevant for Sweden.

In the last few decades, we have seen a rapid increase in global talent flows with increasing competition from firms, universities and countries all interested in attracting the best talent. This report summarizes some recent findings based on global bilateral migration databases developed by the OECD and the World Bank. The report also summarizes some new findings that are especially relevant for Sweden.

Sweden is attracting high-skilled immigrants

Overall, Sweden’s immigrant population consists of relatively skilled individuals, at least when compared with the other countries included in this study (Finland, Denmark, Norway, France, Germany and the Netherlands). This is true for both males and females immigrants. Sweden is also gaining more human capital than it is losing via international migration and the country is particularly successful in attracting high-skilled women. Over time (1990–2010), immigrant selection has trended towards becoming more skilled, although that trend may have been, at least temporarily, broken in 2015–16 with the relatively low-skilled refugee cohorts arriving in Sweden during that time. On the basis of the Swedish register data, the total migration flow to Sweden is rather small at the very top of the skill distribution, i.e. post-graduate level. This phenomenon is not untypical compared with other Nordic countries.

Though many are underutilized

Sweden appears to be at the lower end of the spectrum as regards effectively utilizing its immigrants on the labor market, when compared with the other countries in this study. The relatively low employment rate of immigrants compared with natives holds true for both men and women and across all skill groups in Sweden. Earlier studies have identified specific factors that make it harder for immigrants to assimilate in Sweden, for instance, high minimum wages, low number of available low-skill jobs, and strict employment protection laws. Despite these obstacles, after some time in Sweden, all immigrant groups tend to improve their employment rates, exhibit income growth and move up in the job skill hierarchy.

Policy can make a difference

Despite the lack of a perfect policy recipe to attract skilled immigrants, there are a few general rules for countries hoping to attract and retain more skilled individuals. Firstly, one “needs to let the immigrants come”, which means creating a less restrictive immigration policy at least with respect to high-skilled immigrants. Many Nordic countries use somewhat restrictive practices that slow down the ability of firms to hire the skilled workers they need in a timely manner. Secondly, one “needs to let the immigrants stay”, meaning there must be clear pathways to permanent residency and eventually citizenship for highly skilled individuals coming to Sweden on a temporary work visa.

Other considerations include the provision of opportunities for international students upon graduation. Many countries act as educators for foreign students, yet lack a clear plan in terms of retaining these newly qualified individuals once they are ready to enter the labor market. Finally, it is important to recognize that many immigrant groups tend to be chronically under-utilized on host countries’ labor markets. The reasons for this include a lack of work authorization, language requirements, and so on. Recognizing these factors and alleviating them through well designed policies, language training opportunities, and other means can boost the positive impact of immigration.

The global mobility of skilled workers – lessons for Sweden

Serial number: PM 2017:14

Reference number: 2017/054

Download the report Pdf, 1.2 MB.


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