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Mental Borders. Job Chances for highly qualified migrants


A resource, a treasure which promises tremendous dividends but has yet to be tapped: the knowledge of highly qualified migrants. Many countries throughout the world are competing for the best and brightest, but those who choose to leave their home countries often land in jobs which match neither their capabilities nor their qualifications. This situation poses absolutely no benefit to the migrants or the receiving countries. Prof. Anja Weiss of the University of Duisburg-Essen (UDE) is seeking to explicate this seemingly contradictory state of affairs.

A book has just been published outlining the results from a recently concluded international, VW Foundation-supported study group consisting of researchers from Germany and Canada. The publication, Work in Transition, offers a comparison of labor market entry in Germany, Canada and Turkey. The study group interpreted and analyzed more than 200 interviews with well-educated and well-trained immigrants, and the results have made clear just how important the recognition and approval of cultural capital is. The study also shows how people who have been denied entry into the labor market come up against a dead end.

An asylum seeker reports: “I went to the public health authority and told them: ‘In Iraq, I worked as a senior physician and now I’m recognized in Germany as a medical doctor.’ Then the bureaucrat said: ‘No, if anything you can work as a maid, but you can’t work here as a doctor.’” From this and other similar statements, the authors have concluded that “objective” reasons are not always the deciding factors in determining whether academic credentials can be put to good use in the labor market. More decisive is the way in which individuals are able to negotiate with employers and government agencies.

Weiss et al. explain that these processes generally vary from country to country. In some vocational fields, a certain degree of cross-national similarities can be observed. Managers in Canada, Germany and Turkey, for example, pursue above all else the requisite language skills for doing business in their adopted countries. Physicians are more occupied with overcoming official, bureaucratic barriers to entry. Success stories can be observed in both occupational groups, and amongst migrants who are employed in international, English-speaking fields (for example, in the natural sciences).

“Trajectories into the labor market are dependent on several different dimensions. The job search is intertwined with family life,” argues Weiss. “And legal constraints also impact on both domains.” Those highly qualified individuals who are living without documents in Germany can only escape illegality through marriage. Some interview partners have refused to marry for that very reason. Women with temporary work visas and thus temporary statuses do not want to bring children into the world.

The majority of those with professional degrees who move to Germany and Turkey are not treated by law as highly qualified but are instead handled like refugees, the undocumented, spouses or – in the best case – as students. Legal exceptions to the regulations governing foreigners within the countries are rarely applied in practice. Long-term unemployment or underemployment must also be interpreted against the backdrop of legal restrictions to employment or an outright prohibition to work.

In Germany and Turkey, some highly qualified migrants experience open racism. On a commuter train, one interview partner, a lawyer, was told that being from Brazil she must be a prostitute. One computer scientist of African descent was confounded when a potential employer exclaimed at the beginning of a job interview: “But you’re black!” Experiences such as these contribute to the fact that some foreign professionals are channeled into positions geared towards foreign clients. Their international experience is particularly valued in these “ethnic” occupational fields. The problem, however, is that these fields are not as highly paid and do not offer many opportunities for career advancement.

According to the authors, a basic understanding of the complexity of labor market integration has evaded the respective employment offices. In Germany, they have largely offered foreign professionals a kind of occupational retraining but no academic courses of study. This has resulted in a higher rate of unemployment among ethnic German resettlers than among other groups with higher education. With this in mind, the University of Duisburg-Essen has put together a project called ProSALAMANDER. The project offers a tailor-made German program of study for migrant professionals who were not been able to find adequate employment based on their foreign university degrees. That way, an industrial engineer will not have to work behind a cash register but can instead resume the leadership position she held before, for example, she fell in love with a German and moved to Germany.

Event Information:
Anja Weiss, who authored the book together with Arnd Michael Nohl, Karin Schittenhelm and Oliver Schmidtke, will present the new publication, Work in Transition. Cultural Capital and Highly Skilled Migrants, at 5 p.m. on February 11 at the UDE Institute of Sociology on the Duisburg campus.

Further Information:
Prof. Dr. Anja Weiss, Tel. 0049-176/96879051,

Weitere Informationen:

Beate Kostka | idw - Informationsdienst Wissenschaft

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