Executive summary

Migration has been at the centre of the political debate across the OECD in recent years and debates over policies that aim to support and facilitate the integration of migrants have, at times, become deeply polarising. This is, in no small part, because of lack of solid evidence on the skills migrants bring to their host communities.

Analyses of data from the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) reveal that the literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills of foreign-born adults are, on average, lower than those of the native-born in virtually all countries participating in the survey, but also that skill gaps between migrants and natives vary greatly across countries and different migrant groups. For example, skills gaps are particularly pronounced in Sweden and Finland (where the difference in the mean literacy scores of native-born and foreign-born individuals is greater than 50 points), but much smaller in Australia, the Czech Republic, Ireland, New Zealand and Singapore (where differences are less than eight points). To a large extent, these large cross-country differences are due to migration policies and geopolitical factors determining the composition of the migrant populations and their characteristics across countries.

Crucially, analyses reveal an even larger degree of heterogeneity within countries. Migrants living in the same host country can greatly differ along various dimensions, including skills and educational qualifications. In fact, in most countries’ migrants are a more heterogeneous group than natives. For example, migrants tend to have more variable performance in literacy and numeracy compared to natives, not only when considering the population overall, but also when comparing migrants and natives with similar educational qualifications. Migrants’ skills proficiency varies greatly depending on their level of education, where they acquired this education, their age at arrival, and the duration of stay in the host country.

A large share of the difference in literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills observed between migrants and natives is due to the fact that many migrants are not native language speakers of the language in which the PIAAC assessment was administered, which is most often the official language of the country. For example, the average difference in literacy proficiency between foreign-born and native-born individuals of similar age, gender and education level was 26 points in OECD countries. However, this gap was only half as large, corresponding to 13 points, when considering individuals who completed the test in their native language.

Foreign-born individuals whose mother tongue is different from the language of the test tend to have lower literacy and numeracy proficiency and poorer labour market outcomes than individuals whose mother tongue matches the language of the test. However, the size of the language penalty varies considerably, both across and within countries, as it is related to the degree of proximity between the mother tongue spoken by migrants and the language in which the respondent sat the test.. The penalty is particularly pronounced for those migrants who arrived in the host country after the age of 12, and persists irrespective of length of stay.

Although many migrants have a high need for training, which could reduce language-related and skills-related barriers to participation in the labour market and society, financial and non-financial factors hinder the participation in training. In particular, migrants generally express a higher demand for training programmes than natives, but tend to have lower participation rates. Financial barriers and family responsibilities prevent the participation of many migrants in training activities they are interested in. In fact, the “unrealised demand” for training is higher among migrants than natives. Analyses reveal that once migrants are able to gain access to training , they tend to spend more time than natives in such activities.

Across the OECD, labour market outcomes of migrants tend to lag behind those of the native-born. Migrants are more often unemployed or inactive, and those who are in employment tend to have lower returns to education – in terms of earnings – than their native-born peers. These wage disparities are driven by a plethora of factors. A large part of the difference in the returns to education reflects different patterns in occupational placement, with migrants concentrated in jobs that are associated with a lower socio-economic status. Yet, migrants are often paid less than the native-born even when operating in similar roles. Part of the observed difference in occupational placement between migrants and natives can be explained by differences in the skills held and language spoken by these two groups of workers, although to a different extent in different countries.

Integration cannot be only measured by economic factors like employment and wages, though. The analyses generally show smaller differences between natives and migrants in non-economic outcomes, and this is especially true for self-reported health. While in many countries there are also no differences in generalised trust and political efficacy, in some countries migrants are considerably less likely to report high levels of generalised trust and political efficacy. For example, in Denmark, 46% of natives, but only 32% of migrants report that they disagree or strongly disagree that only few people can be trusted and 52% of natives but only 35% of foreign-born adults report that they disagree or strongly disagree that people like them do not have any say about what the government does. On average across OECD countries, native adults were more likely to report having participated in voluntary work, including unpaid work for a charity, political party, trade union or other non-profit organisation in the year before they participated in PIAAC. Some 35% of native adults, but 27% of migrant adults reported that they had volunteered in the previous year, a difference of eight percentage points. Overall, educational attainment and literacy proficiency are importantly associated with generalised trust and political efficacy among both migrants and natives.

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