Wealthy countries wage global battle for skilled immigrants

Shortage of labour as economy hots up sees nations offering residency, fast-track visas

NEW YORK • As the global economy hots up and tries to put the Covid-19 pandemic aside, a battle for the young and able has begun.

With fast-track visas and promises of permanent residency, many wealthy nations driving the recovery are sending a message to skilled immigrants all over the world: Help wanted. Now.

In Germany, where officials recently warned that the country needs 400,000 new immigrants a year to fill jobs in fields ranging from academia to air-conditioning, a new Immigration Act offers accelerated work visas and six months to visit and find a job.

Canada plans to give residency to 1.2 million new immigrants by 2023. Israel has finalised a deal to bring healthcare workers from Nepal. In Australia, where mines, hospitals and pubs are all short-handed after nearly two years with a closed border, the government intends to double the number of immigrants it allows into the country over the next year.

The global drive to attract foreigners with skills, especially those that fall somewhere between physical labour and a physics PhD, aims to smooth out a bumpy emergence from the pandemic.

Covid-19 disruptions have pushed many people to retire, resign or just not return to work. But its effects run deeper. By keeping so many people in place, the pandemic has made humanity's demographic imbalance more obvious - rapidly ageing rich nations produce too few new workers, while countries with a surplus of young people often lack work for all.

New approaches to that mismatch could influence the worldwide debate over immigration. European governments remain divided on how to handle new waves of asylum seekers.

In the United States, immigration policy remains mostly stuck in place, with a focus on the Mexican border, where migrant detentions have reached a record high.

Still, many developed nations are building more generous, efficient and sophisticated programmes to bring in foreigners and help them become a permanent part of their societies.

"Covid-19 is an accelerator of change," said Mr Jean-Christophe Dumont, head of international migration research for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). "Countries have had to realise the importance of migration and immigrants."

The pandemic has led to several major changes in global mobility. It slowed labour migration. It created more competition for digital nomads as more than 30 nations, including Barbados, Croatia and the United Arab Emirates, created programmes to attract mobile technology workers. And it led to a general easing of the rules on work for foreigners who had already moved.

Many countries, including Belgium, Finland and Greece, granted work rights to foreigners who had arrived on student or other visas.

Some countries, such as New Zealand, also extended temporary work visas indefinitely, while Germany, with its new Immigration Act, accelerated the recognition process for foreign professional qualifications.

In Japan, a swiftly greying country that has traditionally resisted immigration, the government allowed temporary workers to change employers and maintain their status. After offering pathways to residency for aged-care, agriculture and construction workers two years ago, a Japanese official said last week the government was also looking to let other workers on five-year visas stay indefinitely and bring their families.

These moves - listed in a new OECD report on the global migration outlook - amounted to early warnings of labour market desperation.

"Across the OECD, you saw countries treat the immigrant population in the same way as the rest of the population," Mr Dumont said.

When it came time to reopen, fewer people appeared to care about whether immigration levels were reduced, as a poll in Britain showed earlier this year. Then came the labour shortages. Butchers, drivers, mechanics, nurses and restaurant staff - all over the developed world, there did not seem to be enough workers.

In Britain, where Brexit has crimped access to immigrants from Europe, a survey of 5,700 companies in June found that 70 per cent had struggled to hire new employees.

In Australia, mining firms have scaled back earnings projections due to a lack of workers, and there are about 100,000 job openings in hospitality alone. On busy nights, dishwashers at one upscale restaurant in Sydney are earning US$65 (S$89) an hour.

In the US, where baby boomers left the job market at a record rate last year, calls for reorienting immigration policy towards the economy are getting louder. The US Chamber of Commerce has urged policymakers to overhaul the immigration system to allow more work visas and green cards.

Many other countries are galloping further ahead. Israel, for instance, has expanded its bilateral agreements for health workers. There are currently 56,000 immigrants, mostly from Asia, working in the country's nursing care sector. And that may not be enough.

In advanced economies, the immigration measures being deployed include lowering barriers to entry for qualified immigrants, digitising visas to reduce paperwork, increasing salary requirements to reduce exploitation and wage suppression, and promising a route to permanent status for workers most in demand.

Portugal's digital nomads can stay as long as they want. Canada, which experienced its fifth consecutive year of declining births last year, has eased language requirements for residency and opened up 20,000 slots for health workers who want to become full residents.

New Zealand recently said it would grant permanent visas, in a one-time offer, to as many as 165,000 temporary visa holders.

For the countries where immigrants often come from, the broader openness to skilled migration poses the risk of a brain drain, but also offers a release valve for the young and frustrated.

"It's a war for young talent," said Dr Parag Khanna, author of a new book called Move, who has advised governments on immigration policy. "There is a much clearer ladder and a codification of the tiers of residency as countries get serious about the need to have balanced demographics and meet labour shortages."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 29, 2021, with the headline Wealthy countries wage global battle for skilled immigrants. Subscribe