Covid and highly skilled workforce

Remote working during the pandemic has allowed once-mobile skilled workers to choose stillness, with possible long-term impacts on future patterns of work and migration, writes Agnieszka Weinar

THE Covid pandemic has changed our outlook on the privilege of mobility. If before the pandemic crossing borders was an advantage of being highly skilled, then during the pandemic we saw a new privilege emerge: stillness.

Historically, mobility has been associated with two types of privileges, arising from financial or cultural capital. In other words, wealthy or highly educated people, or both, could benefit from lower risk and relatively easier global mobility. Think of the “global professionals” or the “globally mobile elites” or the “global race for talent”. Having skills or money meant the world was at your fingertips, and the mobility limitations of a passport might be easier to overcome than for the rest of society.

The pandemic that crippled the world in 2020 has exacerbated the privilege of mobility and underscored the importance of capital or skills, as have all pandemics in history.

In 2020, people who had either the capital or the skills to be mobile without suffering economically jumped onto the planet to weather the storm. Singapore, for example, has become a popular hangout for the super-rich Asians, with its low infection rates and rather limited health restrictions.

Those who have no capital but have the right skills and a good internet connection might choose to benefit from new political developments. For example, a digital nomad visa in Croatia has enabled many mid-level and highly skilled migrants with precarious employment status to achieve a way of life that they could not afford had they stayed in very expensive urban hot spots by working remotely.

Anecdotal evidence shows that temporary migrant workers from countries with similar health standards – for example, European Union workers or Europeans working in the United States or Canada – have made the decision to return to their country of origin. ‘origin and work from there.

Privilege of staying on site

HOWEVER, the Covid pandemic has caused a new phenomenon: staying put on its own terms.

The privilege of mobility has turned into the privilege of stillness: choosing to stay still while being safe. Those who could afford to do their work from home could do it – but only 25 percent of all workers in the United States could actually work fully from home.

The ability to work from home was also the result of financial capital or a specific skill set.

Migrants who could do their jobs online could more easily continue to work or find a new job than those whose work requires their presence there. This meant that highly skilled migrants in so-called ‘non-essential’ occupations were less affected by the foreclosure than other groups.

This privilege of immobility is also visible in the practice of hiring employees for positions across the world without them changing countries. Remote hiring in virtual offices has become more acceptable to employers, as workers have adapted to new demands. This trend – the growth of remote working, spanning time zones – is one of the biggest unknowns in the post-pandemic labor market.

However, stillness has not always been viewed as a privilege by highly skilled people. For many highly skilled migrants hoping to relocate to a new country, the pandemic has brought difficult delays. In a prime migration destination like Canada, for example, immigration has halved, leaving thousands of highly skilled migrants waiting for an unknown future.

And then ?

IT IS too early to understand the full impact of the pandemic on the mobility of highly skilled migrants. Mainly because data on mobility is still not available and studies are ongoing. Yet the future of highly skilled mobility will itself be one of the most significant impacts of the pandemic. As businesses move towards virtual office models, international recruiting may become redundant and the race for talent moves entirely online.

The potential for reducing highly skilled immigration and making better use of global skill pools through remote working is enormous. However, such a trend can lead to major societal changes and upheavals. One consequence could be a larger pool of virtual workers in the country: those who are ready to work and use their skills but would not move between regions, can now be hired to work for distant companies in the same country.

Another consequence could be the massive migration of highly skilled jobs to workers based abroad, with internationally marketable skills. In such a scenario, migration policies will focus mainly on low-skilled workers, who often risk their lives to move abroad. Any post-pandemic migration policy should take these trends into account., December 21. Agnieszka Weinar is Assistant Research Professor at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at Carleton University. She has been an expert for the European Commission, the World Bank and the International Organization for Migration.

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