Brussels, 24 Oct 2003
Have skills, will travel - an OECD report examines how rich countries are attracting science and technology specialists from developing nations to fill gaping labour shortages.
While policy-makers in developed countries struggle to cope with growing numbers of asylum seekers, many have seen an opportunity to prop up their economies with highly skilled workers - especially in science and technology - from abroad.
In its report, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says that the Australian government, for example, has for decades recruited skilled workers from overseas. European nations, such as Germany, have more recently sought to tackle their labour shortages by granting temporary work permits to IT specialists from non-European Union countries, such as India.
Opinion is divided on whether such mobility undermines poorer nations trying to build up their skill base. The general view is that developed countries benefit more from this exchange because they gain access to a wider pool of talent which boosts their productivity and economic growth. Economies in poorer countries, meanwhile, are thought to be weakened by chronic 'brain drain'.
The OECD reveals in its report 'International Mobility of the Highly Skilled' that, while the benefits are uneven, simple assumptions about the impact of this mobility can be misplaced.
One myth the OECD was keen to dispel is that rich nations have closed their doors entirely to migrants. It counters that the number of highly skilled migrants has, in fact, increased significantly during the 1990s, although the grouping of 30 industrialised states concedes that, due to the nature of mobility, exact figures are hard to come by.
As knowledge-based economies develop, the need for skilled migration will continue to grow, the report predicts. The flow of highly skilled workers from Asia to the United States, Canada, Australia and the UK is expected to be particularly strong, especially where opportunities are lacking at home.
Concerns about losing top brains cut both ways, the report reveals. Developed countries, especially in Europe, are worried they are losing their highly skilled people to other industrialised nations. The USA, for instance, attracts the lion's share of post-doctoral students, researchers, executives and so on from Germany, France, the UK and other EU countries with a strong science background. However, such departures appear to be more temporary in nature: rather "brain circulation" than "brain drain", the report asserts.
"The globalisation of R&D activities of national firms, bottlenecks in employment opportunities and access to leading centres of research and innovation are some of the factors that drive skilled migrants to decamp temporarily from one advanced economy to another," according to a Euroabstracts review of the OECD report. "These factors can also encourage skilled workers from developing countries to emigrate, although more important drivers are likely to be better pay, the existence of immigrant networks and the prospect of permanent settlement in the host country."
The OECD concludes that the benefits of mobility need not be just one way if governments from supplying nations create the right policies and opportunities - such as science parks - to attract their highly skilled expatriates back. Short-term benefits are also evident in the amount of repatriated income which filters back into the home nations' economies. The challenge, the report issues, is to facilitate the cross-border flow of highly skilled workers in ways which create benefits for both sending and receiving nations.