Global Development Institute Blog

Juno Ellison, Wellcome EDI Research Placement intern

The outcomes for migrants are often determined by how states define and value their skill sets. Defining such skills has become increasingly controversial in migration research as there are a variety of contemporary criticisms on the nature of skills themselves: why they are socially constructed, how this translates into policy and legislation, and the consequent implications for our understanding of skilled migration.

Recent literature shows how skills are socially constructed in gendered ways, as skills are both developed and deployed is inextricably linked with gender norms and pressures. This is particularly true for specific countries in the Global South where rigid gender roles may be more entrenched in society and the family. Attempting to define skills in gender-neutral terms based on educational level, occupational experience, or human capital neglects all how gender influences how people come to develop their skills and interact in the labour market. It is argued that the emphasis on distinguishing between skilled versus unskilled migrants in migration policy perpetuates gender inequalities as men more readily fall under the skilled migrant category and can consequently better access the economic and social opportunities associated with migration.

Not only does the definition of skills hold the potential to support the status quo of gender power relations, it is also a product of economic demand and ulterior political motives. The recent move by the UK government to classify care workers on the Shortage Occupation List, thus making migrant care workers eligible for a Skilled Worker visa, is a perfect example. This represents a revaluation of a highly feminised and thus devalued occupation on the basis of economic demand and political bargaining. It demonstrates that the definition of skills is dependent on the demands of the receiving government and thus holds no intrinsic relationship with educational level, occupational experience, or any other definition set out in the academic literature. The arbitrary nature of defining highly skilled migrants allows us to see how the concept of skills is socially constructed depending on a “constellation of actors in specific local, transnational and global contexts“, meaning that it holds no intrinsic correlation with educational level or occupational category.

Viewing skills as socially constructed sheds light on how class, gender, race and (dis)ability affect how migrants’ skills are acknowledged, directly translating into the visa categories individuals are granted, which is inextricably linked to their potential for upward socioeconomic mobility. Recent research looking at skilled migration policies has shown how the definitions of skills significantly impacts the gender and ethnic diversity of migrants entering under different policies. The disparity between the more lenient and expansive definitions of skills used in academic studies and the more restrictive and selective policies used in practice means we have a skewed understanding of the reality of skilled migration. For example, studies that define skilled migrants as having a tertiary education do not accurately account for the actual visa channels through which migrants enter. Female migrants who are classified as skilled because they have a degree may actually enter a country as spouses or students, as having a degree is rarely a necessary or sufficient condition for qualifying for a skilled migrant visa. Furthermore, entering this way may even ‘deskill’ female migrants as without the required visa they cannot access employment that matches their skills.

Other methods of gauging levels of skilled migration rely on census data or immigration statistics. Notwithstanding the issues with the definition of skills already discussed, these face issues of time lags and a failure to account for those who have entered the country illegally. This presents a research conundrum where quantitative data – the figures and statistics that show the numbers of people moving between countries – do not offer any insight into the lived realities of migrants, meaning we do not have a comprehensive understanding of the forces pushing and pulling them. While it is not a silver bullet, qualitative research helps to address this problem. It puts a face to the figures, allowing researchers to penetrate beyond the anonymous statistics shrouding migrants that obscure many of the realities of their lives. It asks direct questions about their motives and motivations, capturing information that can’t be inputted into Excel. It also allows for a far better understanding of the gender and ethnic composition of migrants. This is especially pertinent for countries in the Global South as it enables us to see how the definition of skills used in migration policies affects the diversity of migrants. For example, qualifications from certain countries may not be recognised, while women tend to access education at lower rates, thus disadvantaging them from entering the labour market in multiple ways.

Understanding migration simply as the official quantitative data on people moving between countries is only the tip of the iceberg. The instruments used to gather data rarely reveal the true scale of migration flows or their demographic composition. Consequently, we have little understanding of how the identities of migrants shape both their decision-making and their experiences of migration. Without this insight, policymakers should rely more on qualitative research to move beyond statistics towards the lived experiences of migrants, whatever skills they have, acknowledging that this is the best way of getting to the roots of their stories.

I discovered this debate whilst on an 8 week research placement at the Global Development Institute working for Tanja Bastia and Matthew Walsham, funded by the Wellcome Trust’s EDI research initiative. I was tasked with conducting a literature review on gender and skills in South-South migration, which begged the question about how we actually define skills, and the nature of their relationship to gender. It clearly proved to be a much more vibrant discussion than I had anticipated, deepening my understanding of global feminist issues which I hope to further explore as I finish my undergraduate degree this year.




Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.