How it's worked out

Ranu, Indonesian chef in London

Stories about the restrictions placed on immigrants and the problems they allegedly bring are plentiful.

But over the past 15 to 20 years, some countries have relaxed the entry process for a few foreign nationals that they want to attract. Who are the immigrants the world wants? This is the question this research has been trying to answer.

Since governments usually keep a record of migration flows, and highly skilled professionals are those who seem to have less trouble with border restrictions, it seemed easy enough to track them.

But there are a few obstacles. First, most countries do not classify highly skilled migrants separately from all the others. Most governments also do not seem able to answer the question of who is going where to work on what.

Reports by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) provided a good overall view of migrant flows and of the changes in policy of its 34 countries to manage their foreign labour force.

Two 2012 reports - International Migration Outlook and Connecting with Diasporas - were major sources about where in the world migrating populations from different countries were going.

However, finding data specifically about highly skilled professionals who migrate to work proved difficult, even in the OECD's database. According to the head of the OECD's international migration division, Jean-Christophe Dumont, several groups have been trying to develop comprehensive datasets about the migration of professionals, with no success so far.

The main difficulty lies in the differences between the system each country uses to manage migration flows.

Finding the data

We decided to work with the information available and find out what kind of foreign professionals countries said they were interested in by looking at either official shortage lists or official data.

Governments, however, manage this using different methods. Some set quotas for highly skilled immigrants based on the number of entrants in previous years, while others use official shortage lists and other mechanisms.

Data limitations

  • Different timeframes of the lists
  • Not all countries have lists, so for some countries the number of professions in demand might be incomplete
  • The dataset only covers 24 OECD countries (there are 34 countries in the group), the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and Singapore, so important countries like Mexico and Japan, not to mention most of the African countries, were left out due to lack of information

We managed to find official information for 24 out of the 34 OECD countries - the exceptions being Japan, South Korea, Estonia, Mexico, Chile, Israel, Turkey, the Netherlands, Italy and Iceland.

Most of the countries in the OECD already use shortage lists which are available on their official immigration websites. Others, like Poland, provide market studies conducted by independent companies, which were treated as trusted sources.

However, not all of the countries compile this kind of data or make it available. In the case of Estonia, for example, the Ministry of Economics and Communications was able to provide a list of professions in demand in different areas, but there was no way of finding out the specific kinds of professionals needed in each area. Hence, the country was left out of our final list.

The OECD countries already provided us with an interesting representation of flows around the world, since the group includes the countries which are the main "receivers" of immigrants, including the highly skilled.

But it also made sense to include some of the biggest "donors" of professionals, such as India and China. So we set out to find information about the Brics' needs for foreign professionals and their policies to attract them.

Non-OECD data

For the Brics, however, things had to be a bit different. Only South Africa, Russia and the Special Administrative Regions (SAR) of China seem to have specific policies for highly skilled migrants.

South Africa is the only country to maintain a skill shortage list.

From the conditions Russia outlines for highly skilled working visa applicants, we were able to identify at least one major need of the country: IT professionals.

India, China and Brazil were even more challenging. None of the countries has, so far, adopted a specific policy to attract highly skilled migrants.

Visa processes for those professionals are usually tied mainly to a job offer in the country. In the case of India and China, two countries with big diasporas, most of their efforts so far has been to attract their highly skilled nationals back.

For Brazil, the information was gathered using statistics about the number of professionals allowed in the country in the past year, and an interview with the president of the National Immigration Council, Paulo Sergio de Almeida.

The information about India was taken from several official reports, but mainly from the 12th Five-Year Plan 2012-17 report, carried out by the National Planning Commission.

In the case of the Hong Kong SAR, an official report about the manpower requirements and supply to the region until 2018 provided some insight into its most pressing needs for professionals.

Working visas to Hong Kong are tied to a job offer, which is only considered valid if there is difficulty in finding a local candidate.

Singapore was chosen as a country which has become increasingly attractive to highly skilled migrants, according to the OECD reports.

Since data on Japan and South Korea's professions in demand could not be found, Singapore was added to our list of countries to provide a perspective on Asian countries who are developing policies to attract professionals from around the world.


Once the countries were selected, the next step was to compare their classifications of occupations with the International Standard of Occupations (ISCO-08), which was used as a base for this research.

Most countries use similar standards, but in areas such as IT, some extra work was needed to make sure that the occupations were being properly grouped and understood. There seem to be many different names for IT professionals, for example, out there.

Reaching a comprehensive agreement on how to group the professions was difficult. Some countries build their lists from the very specific employment offers available. Hence, they are more specific about the types of professionals they want: some of them will say just "accountant", while others call them "account controller" or "auditor".

For this reason, it was necessary to find a common ground to group the professions, such as the academic background that allows a person to become an auditor (a degree, master's degree or doctorate in accountancy, for example).

We are aware that there are different paths to becoming a professional, and not all of them involve a specific degree in a particular field.

However, most of the countries with skill shortage lists require university degrees from their candidates. If they don't, they usually grant working visas on condition of a job offer, in which case companies carry out their own recruitment process.

Despite its limitations, the data, once examined, showed an interesting picture that echoes the more detailed studies and reports by the OECD and the International Labour Organization.

In the list of professionals the countries say they want to recruit, we were able to see trends in the mobility of highly skilled professionals in the past decade: health professionals, IT professionals and engineers were the most sought after by the majority of the countries, either to replace the ageing workforce or to compensate for a lack of skills in fast developing countries such as the Brics.

Explore the full data set

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