On Wednesday, the European Commission (EC) launched a new ‘Skills and Talent Mobility’ package. Among other things, the package included the creation of a new European Union Talent Pool which aims to match EU-based employers with jobseekers in non-EU (or ‘third’) countries. This blog explores the history of this idea, why the EC thinks it’s necessary, what some of the constraints are, and what the plan should be going forward.
What is the history behind the EU Talent Pool?
The idea of a Talent Pool was first mentioned by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in reports released in 2016 and 2019. Both recommended that the EC play a more active role in international job matching, especially to support small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in accessing high-skilled talent. The 2019 report explored the experience of other high-income countries (including Australia, Canada, and New Zealand), recommending the creation of a pool of highly skilled candidates to serve existing migration schemes.
The idea was next mentioned in the EC’s September 2020 ‘New Pact on Migration and Asylum’, after which they commissioned the OECD to do a feasibility study. The study, released in April 2022, proposed that eligibility for the Talent Pool be initially restricted to that used by the EU Blue Card, and that job vacancies would be filtered and posted by national focal points. The EC’s communique in the same month announced that the Talent Pool would be piloted to support the intra-EU mobility of Ukrainian refugees. Eight European countries (Croatia, Cyprus, Czechia, Finland, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Spain) aimed to help Ukrainian refugees access four million job vacancies across 5,000 employers. An evaluation of the pilot is still pending. In February this year, the EC began consultations on the regular Talent Pool, the results of which presumably informed this week’s announcement.
How will it work?
Each participating EU member country will appoint a National Contact Point representing relevant authorities in the field of employment and immigration. These Contact Points will assist employers in posting positions that are on the list of EU-wide shortage occupations, or those in shortage domestically. Once a position is live, it appears that the Talent Pool will operate similar to the existing European Employment Services (EURES) platform, which uses tools to facilitate the identification and matching of candidates and employers.
At the same time, potential candidates from ‘third’ countries will be able to register their experience, skills, and qualifications within the Talent Pool. Candidates from all skill levels are invited to add their details and be matched with a job. The Talent Pool is also aiming to provide information on available labour migration pathways and related requirements for accessing work permits, visas, as well as skills recognition procedures in EU member countries. After a position has been found, candidates will still need to go through these processes to access the EU labour market.
What labour migration pathways are available? Firstly, there are pathways which are EU-wide. For example, the EU Blue Card is a scheme that admits highly skilled ‘third’ country workers if they have a work contract which provides a minimum salary and conditions. Blue Card holders can live, work, and move within the EU for the length of their contract. Presumably the Talent Pool is aiming to make it easier for ‘third’ country workers to access that elusive work contract. The EU has Directives to support migration at lower skill levels, such as the Seasonal Workers Directive, which EU member states transpose into their labour migration systems in various ways.
Secondly, European member countries maintain a huge range of other domestic migration pathways which highly skilled ‘third’ country candidates are eligible for. Some of these are general visas. For example, Austria allows ‘very highly qualified’ ‘third’-country workers who are able to reach a minimum of 70 points to access a jobseeker visa which gives them six months to find a work contract; and Germany’s new ‘Skilled Immigration Act’ expanded available migration opportunities to people with vocational skills and a sufficient level of German language provision. Other pathways are more bespoke. For example, France, Germany, and Belgium are training and then hiring candidates in a range of sectors from Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia under the 'Towards a Holistic Approach to Labour Migration Governance and Mobility in North Africa’ (THAMM) programme.
Why do it?
As Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson mentioned in a speech last week, “Europe is losing the race for talent.” There is a perception that the EU is less attractive than other high-income country markets such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and Japan. The primary stated reason for investing in the Talent Pool is to try and make the EU more attractive to highly skilled ‘third’-country workers, enabling them to choose the EU over other markets. Using tertiary education as a proxy for skills, figure 1 shows the share of highly educated migrants in selected OECD countries (EU member countries are shown in gold. Note, this includes EU-born migrants, as well as ‘third’-country migrants.). Certainly, this graph shows that countries such as Canada and Australia outperform those in the EU in terms of highly educated migrant share.
Figure 1. Share of tertiary-educated migrants in OECD countries, 2015/16
Yet it is worth interrogating why the EU is apparently less attractive than other markets to highly skilled ‘third’-country workers. Three reasons have been identified in various communiques, all things the Talent Pool is attempting to address. Firstly, member countries maintain their own systems, platforms, and pathways. It’s difficult for candidates to know what they are eligible for, and they don’t see the EU as a single labour market. Secondly, there are few pathways available to candidates and those that are available are complex to navigate. Skill and qualification recognition are repeatedly noted as lacking. Thirdly, while multinational and larger companies already hire abroad, SMEs don’t have the networks and trust in external candidates to do so. The Talent Pool is aiming to help these SMEs reach a wider network of candidates without having to pay costly recruitment agencies as middlemen.
Of course, the EC also has other reasons for implementing a Talent Pool. Two stand out, particularly voiced by Commissioner Johansson. Firstly, the need to channel irregular migration into legal migration, to help fight smuggling networks. Secondly, to increase remittances to (and therefore economic development in) countries of origin, contributing to broader EU development objectives. It is arguable whether initiatives such as the EU’s Talent Partnerships and Pool will contribute to meeting either of these objectives. For example, it is unlikely those who are moving through irregular means have the same profiles as those who could access roles in shortage sectors, for example. (Of course, EU member countries could always invest in training potential candidates in ‘third’ countries in advance of mobility.) In addition, while arguable, there is some evidence that highly skilled immigrants (particularly those who bring their families) are less likely than lower skilled immigrants to send home remittances.
What are the constraints?
If the Talent Pool is to have the impact that the EC wants it to have, it will need to overcome three main constraints.
Firstly, EU member countries may not want to use it. As stated above, the Talent Pool is entirely voluntary. Countries may not want to attract international talent, expand the number of visas issued, or the number of pathways available. It may also increase competition between member countries. CGD once supported the development of a new migration pathway where two high-income countries, one English- and one non-English-speaking, were due to cooperate. The non-English-speaking country was very nervous about the pathway, as they felt candidates would choose the path of least resistance, picking a role in an English-speaking country rather than learning a new language. This is the precise type of competition that the Talent Pool opens up. That being said, we have also heard from some member countries who may prefer to use the Talent Pool than bilateral routes, although why is unclear.
Secondly, employers may not want to use it. The last five years has seen a steady increase in the creation of bespoke migration pathways by EU member countries, sometimes in partnership with international organisations. Many of these pathways have struggled to get employer buy-in. Employers, especially SMEs, often have a lack of trust in international credentials and may not have experience hiring from a diverse set of talent. While there will hopefully be support for this, at this moment, there is little support provided to SMEs to assist them in understanding and recognising foreign credentials, and to use the Talent Pool in practice.
Thirdly, candidates may not want to use it. As figure 1 shows, currently, highly educated ‘third’-country candidates are largely choosing to move to other high-income countries rather than the EU. It is hard to know whether the lack of a consolidated system is really the binding constraint to this choice, or whether there are other reasons (such as lower pay or fewer benefits). It is also hard to know how the Talent Pool will be ‘sold’ within ‘third’ countries so that potential candidates become aware of its existence (a problem with other migration pathways). And even if its existence is known, other channels may be more attractive for job matching. For instance, we have heard anecdotal evidence that the pilot version of the Talent Pool seems to have been underutilised because Ukrainians seemed to use their own networks and connections to find jobs and opportunities. Finally, as already discussed, it will be narrowly focused on roles in shortage sectors (and full-time roles at that), so many candidates who may want to move to the EU may not be able to use the Talent Pool to find a new role.
What should be done going forward?
If the EU Talent Pool is to have its intended impacts, it must focus on overcoming those constraints. To do so, they need to learn the lessons from other matching platforms and migration pathways which have been attempted in recent years. Three lessons stand out.
Firstly, work closely with employers to understand future skill shortages, stimulate private sector demand, interest them in hiring internationally, and support them in doing so. Second, think about how the Talent Pool is ‘sold’ to ‘third’-country candidates, to make sure there is demand on both sides. Thirdly, work with member countries to make processes easier, reducing red tape and helping government agencies work across silos. Part of this should be making it easier for candidates to know which visas and migration pathways they are eligible for before applying, something countries such as Australia and New Zealand have done.
Alongside this work, more needs to be done to encourage member countries to recognise labour shortages and expand migration pathways, particularly in low- and mid-skill roles in sectors such as health care, construction, engineering, and hospitality. If the EC genuinely means to meet its secondary objectives of promoting economic development in partner countries and reducing irregular migration, they should also think about encouraging targeting these pathways towards emerging economies in sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia.
CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.
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