As the global economy heats up and tries to put the pandemic aside, a battle for the young and the able has begun. With fast-track visas and promises of permanent residence, many wealthy recovery countries are sending a message to skilled immigrants around the world: Help needed. Now.
In Germany, where authorities recently warned that the country needs 400,000 new immigrants a year to fill jobs in fields ranging from universities to air conditioning, a new immigration law offers expedited work visas and six months to visit and find a job.
Canada plans to grant residency to 1.2 million new immigrants by 2023. Israel recently made an agreement to bring in health care workers from Nepal. And in Australia, where mines, hospitals and pubs are all understaffed after nearly two years with a closed border, the government intends to roughly double the number of immigrants it allows in the country over the next year.
The global drive to attract talented foreigners, especially those somewhere between physical labor and a doctorate in physics, is aimed at mitigating a bumpy exit from the pandemic.
The Covid disruptions have caused many people to retire, quit or simply not return to work. But its effects are more profound. By keeping so many people in place, the pandemic has made humanity’s demographic imbalance more evident – rapidly aging rich nations produce too few new workers, while countries with a surplus of young people often lack work to do so. all.
New approaches to this mismatch could influence the global debate on immigration. European governments remain divided on how to deal with the new waves of asylum seekers. In the United States, immigration policy remains for the most part stuck, with a focus on the Mexican border, where detentions of migrants have reached an all-time high. Yet many developed countries are implementing more generous, efficient and sophisticated programs to attract foreigners and help them become an integral part of their society.
âCovid is an accelerator of change,â said Jean-Christophe Dumont, head of international migration research for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD. âCountries have had to realize the importance of migration and immigrants. “
The pandemic has brought about several major changes in global mobility. This slowed down labor migration. This has created more competition for âdigital nomadsâ as more than 30 countries, including Barbados, Croatia and the United Arab Emirates, have created programs to attract mobile tech workers. And that led to a general relaxation of labor rules for foreigners who had already moved.
Many countries, including Belgium, Finland and Greece, grant employment rights to foreigners arriving on a student or other visa. Some countries, like New Zealand, have also extended temporary work visas indefinitely, while Germany, with its new immigration law, has speeded up the process of recognizing foreign professional qualifications. In Japan, a rapidly aging country that has traditionally resisted immigration, the government has allowed temporary workers to change employers and retain their status.
These measures – listed in a new OECD report on the outlook for global migration – were early warnings of desperation in the labor market. Humanitarian concerns seemed to combine with administrative uncertainty: how would immigration rules be enforced in a once-in-a-century epidemic? How would businesses and employees survive?
âAcross the OECD, you have seen countries treating the immigrant population the same as the rest of the population,â said Dumont.
When the time came to reopen, fewer people seemed to care whether immigration levels were reduced, as a poll in Britain showed earlier this year. Then came the labor shortages. Butchers, drivers, mechanics, nurses and catering staff – all over the developed world there didn’t seem to be enough workers.
In the United States, where baby boomers left the workforce at a record pace last year, calls for a shift in immigration policy toward the economy are growing. The United States Chamber of Commerce has urged policymakers to overhaul the immigration system to allow more work visas and green cards.
President Biden first tries to unclog what is already there. The administration’s $ 2.2 trillion social policy bill, if passed by a divided Senate, would free up hundreds of thousands of green cards dating back to 1992, making them available to immigrants currently caught in a bureaucratic backlog.
Many other countries are galloping further. Israel, for example, has extended its bilateral agreements to health workers. Inbal Mashash, director of the Israeli government’s program for foreign workforce management, noted that there are currently 56,000 immigrants, mostly from Asia, working in the country’s nursing sector. And that may not be enough.
âThe state continues to wonder where it wants to take this,â she said. “Do we want 100,000 foreign workers, in the nursing sector alone, by 2035?”
In advanced economies, immigration measures deployed include lowering barriers to entry for skilled immigrants, digitizing visas to reduce paperwork, increasing salary requirements to reduce exploitation and removing wages, and the promise of a path 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 in 2020, has eased language requirements for residency and opened 20,000 spaces for health workers wishing to become full residents. New Zealand recently announced that it will grant permanent visas, as part of a single offer, to as many as 165,000 temporary visa holders.
Perhaps one of the biggest changes is in Japan, where a demographic time bomb has left adult diapers more sold than baby diapers. After providing access routes to the residence for elderly care, agriculture and construction workers two years ago, a Japanese official said last week that the government was also seeking to let some other workers with five-year visas stay indefinitely and bring their families.
“It’s a war for young talent,” said Parag Khanna, author of a new book called “Move”, who has advised governments on immigration policy. “There is a much clearer scale and codification of levels of residence as countries take seriously the need for balanced demographics and dealing with labor shortages.”
For countries where immigrants often come, the wider openness to skilled migration poses the risk of a brain drain, but also offers a relief valve for the young and the frustrated.
Countries like Germany are eager to welcome them: its much-vaunted professional system, with strict certifications and on-the-job training, is increasingly understaffed.
âDuring the coronavirus crisis, the system really fell apart,â said Holger Bonin, research director at the IZA Institute of Labor Economics in Bonn. âWe have recorded the lowest number of apprenticeship contracts since German unification.
Young Germans increasingly prefer to attend universities and the country’s workforce is shrinking. According to a study recently published by the German Economic Institute, Germany will lose five million workers over the next 15 years, or 3.2 million by 2030.
Immigrants have become a stopgap. Three years ago, around 1.8 million people with an immigrant background lived in Germany. And over time, the country has tried to improve the way it integrates both asylum seekers and foreigners on work visas.
One recent morning at Bildungskreis Handwerk, a regional training center in Dortmund, near the Dutch border, around 100 trainees walked the linoleum floor corridors of a five-story building in a quiet residential area. In classrooms and workspaces, they learned to be professional hairdressers, electricians, carpenters, welders, painters, factory mechanics, cutting machine operators and maintenance engineers.
The costs of the 24 to 28 month programs are covered by the local government employment agency, which also covers the costs of the apartment and living room. To enter, applicants must first complete an integration course and a language course – also paid for by the German government.
âAt this point, no matter which of our departments graduates our interns – skilled workers are desperately needed in almost every field,â said Martin Rostowski, deputy director of the center.
Serghei Liseniuc, 40, who arrived in Germany from Moldova in 2015, has started training as a factory mechanic, which will soon bring him a stable job and higher wages. âWe’re a bit like doctors,â he says. âDoctors help people and we help buildings. “
But despite the gains for some workers and places, economists and demographers argue that labor market gaps will persist and widen, as the pandemic reveals how much remains to be done to deal with a global imbalance not just in terms of population but also development.
Perhaps a question flows like a stream of cold water just beneath the new warm welcome: what if there aren’t enough skilled workers wanting to move?
“You hear the same thing everywhere,” said Dumont, a researcher at the OECD. âIf you want to attract new workers, you have to offer them attractive conditions.
Vjosa Isai and Gabby Sobelman contributed reports.