Occupational Mobility of Immigrants in Advanced Countries: How Do They Fare Between Home and Host Countries?

It is widely recognized that the performance in the labour market is a key element of the economic and social integration of immigrants in host countries. Thus, it is no surprise that the occupational attainment of immigrants and its evolution over time has been the focus of considerable attention in the academic literature. Whereas most of the empirical studies on this issue tend to compare the occupational mobility of immigrants with that of native workers, a particularly interesting alternative approach is to examine the occupational mobility of immigrants between their home and host countries.

However, the type of longitudinal information required for this kind of analysis is rather scarce and, as a consequence, empirical studies on this question are rare and cover only a small number of advanced countries. These studies generally observe a U-shaped pattern of occupational mobility (i.e. an initial occupational downgrading of immigrants on arrival in the host country and a significant occupational improvement as the duration of residence increases) for countries such as Australia, the United States and Sweden.

In a recent article (Simón, H.; Sanromá, E.; Ramos, R. (2014): ‘Immigrant occupational mobility: Longitudinal evidence from Spain’, European Journal of Population, 30 (2), pp. 223-255), we re-examine this question for the Spanish economy. Spain is an interesting case to analyze given the sharp increase in immigration experienced since the middle of the nineties and up to the start of the Great Recession, on the one hand, and the particular characteristics of its employment structure, on the other. In particular, given that Spain’s occupational structure is biased to low-skill occupations and that the recent massive inflows of immigrants coincided with the generation of employment in low-skill jobs, the pattern of occupational mobility of immigrants could differ from that of other advanced countries where employment structures are typically characterised by a large presence of highly skilled jobs.

The research is based on microdata from the Encuesta Nacional de Inmigrantes (i.e., National Immigrants’ Survey), a survey prepared by the Spanish National Statistics Institute in 2007 that provides detailed information on a wide representative sample of the immigrant population in Spain. The survey is targeted to foreign-born people older than 15 living in Spain and is one of the very few available statistical sources available internationally with retrospective information on the employment situation of immigrants in their home and host countries. Specifically, it contains information on the occupation and other characteristics for the last job in the country of origin and the first and current job in Spain.

Our empirical analysis focuses on immigrants with employment experience in their countries of origin and in Spain and is limited to immigrants arriving in Spain between 1997 and 2007, a homogeneous phase of sustained growth and strong job creation in Spain, in order to reduce the effects of potential methodological problems such us return migration or changes in the composition of immigrants arriving at different points in time. Moreover, an international, standardised index of occupational status (the International Socio-Economic Index) is employed in order to facilitate the comparison of the occupational status of immigrants from different countries and the quantitative analysis of their occupational trajectories. This index combines weighted information about educational requirements and the potential earnings of each occupation in different countries and measures continuous values between 16 and 70 in the case of the Encuesta Nacional de Inmigrantes.

Our empirical results suggest that the occupational status of immigrants tends to be substantially worse in Spain than in their countries of origin and that occupational downgrading is a generalised phenomenon. The severe loss of occupational status experienced by immigrants is explained by the combined effects of the intense downgrading they experience on arrival to Spain (the average occupational status of immigrants in their countries of origin is 40 points in the ISEI scale, whereas the average status of their first job in Spain is of 27.8 points) and by the slow subsequent occupational upgrading (the average occupational status of their last job in Spain is of 30.8 points). Furthermore, both occupational downgrading on arrival and slow subsequent occupational recovery are rather extended phenomena, given that a vast majority of immigrants found a job in Spain with a lower occupational status than in their countries of origin, on the one hand, and were unable to improve their occupational status between the first and current job in Spain, on the other. In addition, although there exist distinct patterns of mobility for some specific groups, they tend to affect most of immigrants according to characteristics such as gender, educational level or reasons to migrate. Finally, different pieces of empirical evidence suggest that one of the elements impeding the occupational mobility of immigrants is the significant size of the secondary segment of the labour market in Spain, which restricts immigrants’ opportunities mainly to low-status occupations. This conclusion is consistent with the fact that from an international comparative perspective Spain is one advanced country which has a higher secondary segment of the labour market and a lower occupational status of immigrants.

Consequently, according to our evidence the pattern of occupational mobility of international migrants in Spain, characterised by an intense occupational degradation on arrival and limited subsequent progress, contrasts sharply with previous evidence for other advanced countries. This is relevant insomuch as, overall, the Spanish case shows that a U-shaped pattern in the occupational status of immigrants, as suggested by prevalent theoretical approaches such as the assimilation theory, is not always found and that, as suggested by less optimistic alternative approaches, immigrants can experience limited or blocked occupational mobility depending of the characteristics of the host economy.


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