Highly skilled migrants and underemployment

  • Why do highly skilled migrants encounter difficulties in obtaining a skilled job?
  • How willing are organisations to recruit highly skilled migrants?

These are two of the questions that Annette Risberg and Laurence Romani have explored in a recent study[1]. They shift the focus away from analysing the skills and characteristics of the migrants (i.e. a deficit, individual-level approach) and instead explore the attitudes of recruiting organisations and ask “why do organizations underemploy highly skilled migrants?”

Experiences of mentors and mentees of highly skilled migrants in Sweden

The authors carried out their study in Sweden, where there is both a skills shortage and underemployment of highly skilled migrants (45% of highly skilled migrants are underemployed compared with 20% of highly skilled workers born in Sweden). They collected data from an organisation that seeks to strengthen the employability of highly skilled migrants within Sweden. This organisation has (among other things) a flagship mentoring programme, in which mentors and mentees are brought together for mutual benefit.

The researchers collected data from this organisation’s mentoring programme over a 10-month period. They observed 6 mentor programmes (40 hours of observation) and the organisation itself (26 hours of observation), and interviewed a range of people, including 19 mentors and mentees.

This is what they found:

Employers’ concerns that migrants’ performance would be lower  

One key theme that emerged was a fear among employers that highly skilled migrants would not perform as well as local people and it was thus riskier to recruit them. For instance, one mentor commented as follows:

HR tells us that when they suggest a foreign candidate the hiring managers say, ‘Well, no, I prefer someone with the name Andersson who can start to do the job from day one, with whom I can feel sure.’ Even though it says in the CV that the applicant speaks Swedish well, the managers think more of their own needs and it is coloured by what they are used to.

Employers’ concerns that migrants won’t fit in

A second key theme was a belief among employers that migrants wouldn’t fit in with an organisation’s existing staff and ways of doing things. For instance, another mentor emphasised how a person’s potential fit into an existing group is part of her reasoning when hiring:

[When I recruit], I start with thinking: ‘Well, this person would probably fit with the others in the group’ (. . .) The four of us have worked together for at least a year – then you know each other pretty well. You know who knows what, who’s good at what, and then you want the new person to fit into the group as well.

She concluded by stressing that conforming to a certain norm is preferable for all parties: “In the end, you want a group of people to be able to work together without anyone feeling uncomfortable or outside.”

Unfamiliarity and perception of risk

The researchers interpreted their findings from a risk perspective. They found that recruiters regarded highly skilled migrants to be a potential risk to organisational performance. The main source of such attitudes seemed to be unfamiliarity which in turn gave rise to feelings of uncertainty.

Key takeaways

Although this is just a single study from one organisation in one region of one country, so that making generalisations are unwise, there are still some valuable takeaways.

Fairness for migrants can be hampered by the following:

  • Recruiters’ desire to stay within their comfort zones
  • Unfamiliarity, which leads recruiters to perceive higher levels of risk
  • The assumption that similarity is what is needed for smooth working relations
  • Recruiters’ failure to perceive the linguistic and social capital that highly skilled migrants can bring
  • The one-sided perspective of recruiters; as the authors state: “Although a migrant’s lack of Swedish proficiency is presented as a problem, the non-migrant’s lack of intercultural communication skills is never problematized.”

Professor Helen Spencer-Oatey, Director

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[1] Risberg, A., & Romani, L. (2022). Underemploying highly skilled migrants: An organizational logic protecting corporate ‘normality’. Human Relations, 75(4), 655–680.