Immobility threatens European prosperity

Dec 11 2006 by Brian Amble Print This Article

While it is commonplace for people in North America to relocate hundreds or even thousands of miles for professional reasons, European Union efforts to plug skills gaps by encouraging greater labour mobility between member states are failing.

Cross-border professional mobility in Europe is falling well short of expectations, according to a new report by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, and this inertia is damaging Europe's competitiveness.

Increasing the mobility of skilled workers was identified as a key objective of the EU's Lisbon Strategy to make Europe the most dynamic and competitive market in the world by 2010.

But far from employers being able to plug skills gaps at competitive costs with staff from other EU states, the report says that with the exception of the Nordic countries, Ireland and the UK, mobility of professionals remains "disappointingly low".

Only a third of the 445 employers surveyed across 14 countries received applications for senior management, professional and skilled manual positions from other EU countries in 2006, amounting to just five per cent of all applications.

As the report, "Managing Mobility Matters 2006", highlights, barriers to mobility within Europe remain significant. Language is a major obstacle, while differences in tax systems, healthcare, benefits, the lack of EU-wide integrated employment legislation and patchy cross-border recognition of professional qualifications can also be a disincentive.

However, the report highlights how more practical issues such as work and careers for spouses, the availability of housing and schools and being cut off from family and friends are at least as significant - discouraging potential candidates from taking jobs in foreign countries.

Compounding this, there is an acute lack of positive messages and awareness about how to access information on working in other countries. All of this fuels the assumption that securing a job and working in another country is an extremely difficult process, the report argues.

PWC's Kevin Delany said that only an average of 13 per cent of EU companies are now looking at mobile workers to ease their recruitment difficulties compared to some 21 per cent in 2001:

This is despite the fact that those employing foreign workers are generally positive about their performance, with many believing them to be more willing to fit in and to work harder than their existing workforce.

"The big question is whether the Lisbon aspirations are over-optimistic or unrealistic," Delany said.

"Businesses all over Europe would benefit from increased professional mobility and this research is intended to help the Commission and employers understand some of the current barriers.

"Companies that want to attract professionals from across borders need to provide assistance for foreign workers to deal with unfamiliar tax and employment systems, and also support them in finding suitable housing and schools," he continued.

"Lack of cross border recognition of professional qualifications and barriers to the use of services from other countries have been stumbling blocks in the past, but these are beginning to be addressed. Goods, services and capital flow freely throughout the EU. If workers did the same, European businesses would reap substantial economic dividends."

But three is one exception to the European norm. A new study by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has found that some 5.5m British people live permanently abroad Ė almost one in 10 of the UK population.

This figure rises to six million if those who live or work part of the year abroad are included.

Although the majority live in English speaking nations such as Australia and the US, in all some 41 nations each have at least 10,000 permanent British residents.

Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, co-author of the IPPR report, told the BBC that the scale of this British diaspora was being driven by the UK's economic strength.

"Britain is truly at the crossroads of the global movement of people," he said. "Two-thirds of Britons who leave do so to seek employment abroad - and are replaced by skilled professionals from elsewhere in the world."