Migration has been at the centre of policy debate across the OECD in recent years, largely due to the refugee crisis. In many countries, responses to this crisis, in particular policies aimed at supporting and facilitating the integration of migrants, have been deeply polarising. The debate often considers migrants as a homogenous group, characterised by low skills, little chance of integrating and thus, a burden on the public purse and on society.

Contrary to this perception, data show that migrant populations are highly heterogeneous, both across and within countries. Immigrants come from very different backgrounds and the education and experience they bring with them can differ markedly. One third of foreign-born people in OECD countries hold a higher education degree, while less than a quarter attain only primary education or lower.

Most immigrants have jobs and, among low-educated migrants, employment rates are similar to those of their native-born peers. Paradoxically, the employment rates of highly-educated migrants are lower than those of their native-born counterparts, in spite of the increasing reliance of OECD economies on the skills of foreign-born workers. Even when they are employed, highly-educated migrants are almost 50% more likely than similarly-educated natives to be over-qualified for their job.

To ensure the successful integration of migrants into OECD economies and societies, several questions need to be addressed regarding migrants’ skills and the perception of these skills among various segments of host countries' societies. For example, to what extent are OECD countries failing to utilise the skills of migrants? To what extent are employers uncertain about the skills migrants hold, making it difficult to offer jobs that match their skills, or prompting them simply to avoid hiring migrants entirely? To what extent unemployment and over-qualification among highly-educated migrants reflect differences in educational systems across countries?

Drawing on data from the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), this report aims to answer these questions by reviewing the differences in migrants’ characteristics and considering how they relate to the actual skills migrants possess. It also examines the relationship between migrants’ skills and their labour and non-labour market outcomes in host countries. Finally, it sheds new light on how migrants’ skills are developed, used and valued in host country labour markets and societies.

The report represents an invaluable resource for policy makers wishing to design and implement strategies that can promote the long-term integration of migrants in the economic and social life of their countries. Evidence-based policymaking can strengthen the integration of new arrivals and ensure that receiving countries fully benefit from the opportunities that international migration brings. Moreover, results and lessons gleaned from the analysis highlight the way forward for future research on this topic.

Several factors affect the work and well-being outcomes of immigrants. These include the country in which they completed their highest level of education, the language(s) they speak, the age they had at the time of arrival and the overall time they have spent in the country. Literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills are needed by all adults to fully participate in modern societies and labour markets, but when immigrants face a language barrier, this can not only make it more difficult to find a job that matches their skills levels, but also to develop a sense of integration in the host country.

Across the OECD, labour market outcomes of migrants tend to lag behind those of the native-born. While migrants with low levels of education have employment rates similar to those of low-educated natives, highly-educated migrants display relatively lower employment rates, in spite of the increasing reliance on skills in OECD economies. Moreover, when highly-educated migrants are employed, they are almost 50% more likely than their native-born counterparts to be over-qualified for their job.

Migrants are concentrated in jobs that are associated with a lower socio-economic status. Part of the observed difference in occupational placement between migrants and natives can be explained by differences in the skills held by these two groups of workers. But differences persist even after taking language, literacy and numeracy proficiency into account.

Migrants express a high demand for participating in training programmes that could help them upgrade their skills, but they also face higher barriers to participation in such training programmes. These barriers are often of a financial nature, although family responsibilities also play an important role.

A clear conclusion emerging from the analysis is that an effective integration policy should not target migrants as a homogenous group, but should instead be carefully tailored to the needs and circumstances of the individual migrant. In particular, effective integration policies must build upon migrants’ existing skills and experiences in order to help them recognise, develop, and use their skills in a tailored and individualised fashion.

Given the centrality of language skills in determining employment prospects and the ability to fully function in the host country society, the development of effective language tuition is of paramount importance. The education level, age, mother-tongue and existing language skills of individuals have a significant impact on the speed with which they are able to pick up new languages. Older learners, the low-educated, and those whose mother tongue is linguistically distant from the host-country language are likely to require more course hours than younger and more educated migrants, as well as those who have a smaller linguistic distance to traverse. As a result, it is very important that language courses are tailored – in terms of speed and teaching methods – to the characteristics of their students.

A key factor determining migrants’ skills and labour market performance is the country in which migrants completed their education. Integration policy can play an important role in facilitating and streamlining the process for recognition of foreign qualifications. This is particularly important for access to regulated professions that require a formal certificate or license.

Beyond integration policy, the findings of this report also hold implications for the design of broader migration policies. For example, policies that rely on educational qualifications as a criterion to grant access into the country may be inefficient in selecting the most skilled migrants. Other characteristics – such as language proficiency and information processing skills – should also be taken into consideration in the design of labour migration policy.

Migration is going to stay with us in the years to come and therefore, providing insights about the relationship between the migrants’ skills and their work and life outcomes in host countries should inform policy responses that foster inclusive growth and promote greater social cohesion. This is equally important for both migrant and native populations, because we really are stronger together.


Stefano Scarpetta

Director, Employment, Labour and Social Affairs Directorate


Andreas Schleicher

Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General, OECD

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