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Skilled Worker Visas: Here Today.

Updated on September 2, 2016

Now Boarding

Every day I enjoy the extraordinary privilege of being entrusted with people’s hopes and dreams, along with resolving the legal and logistical problems required to open doors, change lives, and make those dreams come true.

It’s a job description that’s hard not to like.

I help people to emigrate.

Perhaps inevitably, and certainly understandably, my clients are engrossed in the challenges of their particular cases. To the extent they are aware of the bigger picture, or even motivated by, the details of that bigger picture necessarily remain a bit of small talk here, a bit of background noise there.

Yet as an emigration practitioner, daily collecting anecdotal evidence from clients, studying the detail of immigration policy, noting what fresh events and political pressures are daily being brought to bear, contemplating where those policies might go next, and the implications for my clients, the bigger picture is hugely relevant and ceaselessly fascinating.

Many, if not most, of my clients are seeking to emigrate by way of what we refer to as “skilled worker” visa, of one variation or another.

And I encourage all those who are eligible to take advantage of this route if they can.

That’s not least because skilled worker visas may not be endangered, but I would suggest they are not as sure a bet for longer term departure planning as they might first appear.

What I would share with you here is some of the context that I do not typically delve into with my clients.

Voting with their boarding passes

Human migration – who is doing it, in what numbers, who controls it, how it is controlled, and from and to where migrants are travelling -- provides perhaps the most immediate insight we have into the human condition.

We certainly do not need to wait for historical perspective to emerge many years hence: migration trends speak volumes today.

We immediately intuit and understand the fear of a refugee, the uncertainty of a recent immigrant, and the lure of distant lands where the streets, some say, are paved with gold.

To the extent we might consider becoming migrants ourselves, we can appreciate the sense of opportunity, adventure, or deep-seated need for change that might motivate it.

Perhaps as well that’s because we’re all migrants, even if we’ve only from our parents’ home to our own new digs across town. It’s just that some of us, myself included, keep on moving even when we find ourselves crossing international borders.

As migrants, we are not just travellers, but travellers at a crossroads in our lives. Travellers anticipate return; migrants do not retain that certainty. We look forward to something new, and necessarily, we leave something behind.

Which is all very well, until we realise that the place we are moving to already has some folks settled there, and those folks are likely to have some opinions about new arrivals. And, however we choose to think about it, we also have visceral reactions to strange faces in familiar spaces – as do the natives we encounter upon arrival.

Interview with the Gatekeeper

In the airport terminal at international arrivals, just after the interminable queue, and just before the duty free shop, everyone gets to have a personal conversation with a representative of the destination country’s government.

Most want as brief a conversation as possible, followed by a firmly stamped passport, while many are impatient they must speak with anyone at all.

This despite (or because of) the fact that this interaction could result in their being put on an airplane back to where they just came from.

Similarly, despite entrusting us with their hopes and dreams, our clients begin by being reluctant speak to us.

We represent a stop along the way, as they look past our shoulders to admire the greener grass on the other side of the fence. They may appreciate our help to pass through that fence, but none are fans of the fence, or have much interest in the gate.

That said, some clients, and each to varying degrees throughout the process, begin to appreciate that there are numerous gateways, some of which will not open for them, and that we are there to help them find the gateway that will.

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Before the Law

New emigration enquiries arrive in my inbox daily, and the vast majority by far are matter-of-fact, am-I-eligible-to-move-there type stuff.

Just as reliably, a handful of these enquiries include extra notes that suggest the potential migrant is unsure if they might be talking to a recruiter, a border control agent, or even their next employer.

The result is typically a note that takes some extra initiative to catch the attention or approval of their interlocutor. These efforts fall broadly into two camps: either (a) I am an impressive candidate, or (b) I am an eager contributor, keen to offer my best efforts.

The former are simply extra swathes of the same type of fabric from which most CVs are cut: true to a degree, and perhaps even highlighting some rather impressive achievements. The naïve assumption is that the intended reader doesn’t possess the jaundiced eye one inevitably develops from seeing dozens of CVs every day.

The latter, by contrast, entreats their interlocutor to look past any detriments in their CV and instead believe that this applicant possesses that certain je ne sais quoi that Country X has in short supply, which the applicant’s admission to Country X can have a measurable impact in quashing.

Ridiculous, on many levels, but I mention these notes because despite the inescapable naïveté, nonetheless they contain a fundamental insight it took me some time as a practitioner to fully appreciate.

What these applicants intuit and are responding to is the fact that all international migrants, whether explicitly, implicitly, or entirely unwittingly, have set themselves the project of beseeching the favour of the border guard. Simple as that.

In those terms, these notes and entreaties identify themselves as engaging a project worthy of Kafka’s parable “Before the Law”.

I suspect that by contrast, the vast majority (those matter-of-fact applicants) are only dimly aware of the degree to which they are relying on the favour of unknown others, or attempting to scale an edifice of unknown proportions, in attaining what they regard as the wholly personal goal of moving from this place to that.

Think that's dark: try Kafka and stare into the abyss.

The Trial (Wisehouse Classics Edition)
The Trial (Wisehouse Classics Edition)

Whether to gleen insight into law, bureaucracy, human behaviour, or the paradoxes you never realised were hidden in the crevices between them, Kafka is a must. "Before the Law" is a parable found in The Trial.


Gatekeepers All

Humans wander.

Perhaps the first reason to wander is to follow the beasts, or the berries – or the beauties – from the low(er) resource density area to the high(er) resource density areas.

These days, we call these folks “economic migrants” – tied as we are to the all-embracing cult of “the economy” -- which term has connotations of rational actors, and a certain scientific measurability, as folks continue as they always have to wander from areas of lower to higher resource density.

Economic migrants may be motivated by the thirst for opportunity (call it greed, if you wish), but equally many might have been happy to stay where they were, but leave through anticipation of job losses, or declining opportunities (which is to say fear, or fear of loss, which ultimately is what fear is always about).

The media are in the habit of making a distinction between economic migrants, and refugees.

But that distinction, to the extent there is one at all, is one of degree, or perhaps even just slight variations in the motivation of the migrant.

Economic migrants, we could say, are motivated by opportunity (and perhaps pushed by circumstance), whereas refugees are pushed by circumstance (and impelled toward opportunity).

But is that really a distinction with a difference?

Refugees are arguably just highly motivated economic migrants, albeit motivated in part by well-armed bullies chasing them from their homes.

We might justifiably drop the “economic migrant” and “refugee” tags as politically charged surplusage, and just recognise them as fellow wanderers.

Perhaps the only real distinction between them, then, is not who they are, or where they are from, but who they encounter in their wanderings, and how those people regard them.

That is, how do we regard them, as the gatekeepers of the places where we live.

Which quickly begs the question, should we ever choose to wander, how would we wish to be regarded by the gatekeepers of someone else’s home?

Pulitzer prize: tick. 1 million copies: tick.

GUNS, GERMS AND STEEL - A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years
GUNS, GERMS AND STEEL - A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years

For a brilliant summary of the deep and wide global effects of human migration, both on the places, and on the migrants, it would be hard to find a better place to start than with Guns, Germs & Steel.


Please form an orderly queue

The tricky thing about migrants is that it is never entirely clear, having established this place as our home, whether we should let anyone else in at all -- ever.

After all, we’ve got a good thing going, and we aren’t going to let just anyone in (that would be irrational, and quite quickly get out of control).

To the extent we do let anyone in, to take advantage of the benefits offered by our home, or to the degree we refuse, because they have failed some test of our own creation, we set about the project of rationalising our choices.

We create reasons, and systems of reasons, to empower and modulate our actions as gatekeepers.

These reasons we then animate with the force of law, we back with the force of arms, honour with the dignities of tradition, and defend with the passion worthy of the forefathers of this, our home (never mind that invariably they got here, wherever here may be, as migrants).

Very quickly the systematisation of migration – let’s give it a name: “immigration law” – gathers legitimacy, and migrants begin to form an orderly queue at the gate thus established.

But what, fundamentally, do we use to distinguish one migrant from another?

Here is the crux of the matter, because we have now arrived at the crossroads of the world, the marketplace of humanity, the quid pro quo exchanges by which lives are shaped, fortunes are made or lost, and perhaps as well we judge ourselves and our civilisation.

Change is a Comin’

One thing that we immigration practitioners do have a tendency to bang on about is how immigration law is constantly in flux, and usually not for the better in terms of freedom of movement.

Some of that may be attributable to the challenge of keeping any voting populace happy with a system that every voter has an opinion about, and strong opinions at that. See, e.g., Brexit 2016 (and stay tuned for further instalments!).

The social nature of humans, and the nature of human community, remains forever counterpoised against our perception of resource scarcity, which together results in our modern uncertainty about the role of the individual in the society that sustains us, and our ambivalence to both the extreme “isms” of individualism and communitarianism.

As such there is instability at the heart of any system of fences and gateways, despite our perceived need for boundaries and private space. These fences make tangible in space the lines we are forever drawing and re-drawing within ourselves, and which are constantly in flux.

Given these tensions, it is not just the practical elements of the system that are apt to change, the philosophical underpinnings of that system are also and ever up for grabs as well.

The creation and maintenance of a system of fences and gateways that must claim popular (and legal) legitimacy is a political juggling act at the best of times, and one where the balls one government tosses are likely as not to be caught by an entirely fresh successive government, which is then as likely as not to bobble some balls and add entirely new ones to the routine on the fly.

At the moment the rationalists seem to have the upper hand, arguing as they do for national economic prerogatives to be a guiding force in who gets in and who is kept out.

But anyone who has seen the photos of drowned children washed-up on Greek or Turkish beaches, or videos of desperately over-loaded boats capsizing in the Mediterranean, cannot help but feel that “something must be done”, and as accommodating, heart-felt exceptions are carved from hard-nosed rationalist rules, those exceptions hold the very real possibility of devouring the rules they are carved from.

And so we see fresh revisions to whatever system needs something done about it, and the process of change continues.

Ten Pound Poms

In terms of radical changes over relatively short time frames, Australia provides a prime example.

In the post-war years and right up until the early 1970’s, the Australian government was so intent on attracting migrants to prop-up the national economy (they even referred to the policy as “populate or perish”), they heavily subsidised passage for willing migrants under what became known as the Ten Pound Pom scheme.

Famous participants include the Gibb brothers of the Bee Gees, originally from Manchester, England, and key members of the band AC/DC (Ah, the 70’s…)

But that was then: Ten Pound Poms are gone, and in their place is a points-based filtration system that is the envy of border control officers the world over, with Australia commonly cited as having one of the world’s best immigration systems.

So much so, that in 2015, Canada attempted to adopt it wholesale, throwing overboard virtually the entire system it replaced.

Unfortunately, like the cargo cults of the South Pacific, what the Canadians built may look like the Australian system, but sadly doesn’t work like the Australian system (but that’s a subject for another post!)

Flaws aside, what both of these systems have in common is the rationalistic notion that border control is a project best linked at the hip with economic growth prerogatives.

Whether they accomplish that is another matter entirely, but in any case, in addition to completely transforming their immigration system, the Australians have incorporated “change” deep at the heart of that system.

Substantial revisions to the list of which people with which skill-groups are welcome, and which are no longer in favour, are made on a regular basis. These changes can be made without fresh legislation, at the whim of an agency administrator.

So: how quickly can any given gateway to Australia shut?

Very quickly indeed.

Quid pro quo

Whatever the superficial trends of which skill sets are in vogue at any moment (is software still hot, or is biotech hotter?), and the refugee question very much aside, dealing with migration as a quid pro quo arrangement is a common feature.

The basic idea is that in exchange for the invaluable visa, the host nation should get something worthwhile in return. That nation sets out their standards for what they want, and it is up to the migrant to prove they have the necessaries to do the deal.

Attractive jurisdictions can – and do – ask for whatever they want in this exchange.

Some otherwise liberal democracies have implemented policies that curry the favour of rich migrants as a priority (and places like Canada, who perhaps haven’t been careful about what they wished for, are now asking themselves why).

On the other hand, some seemingly impenetrable destinations (e.g., the USA) are happy for you simply to marry a local. But fraudsters beware: Americans believe in true love, and its handcuffs and deportation orders for pretenders!

Others again, including Canada and Australia as mentioned above, want you to provide a demonstrable and immediate economic benefit to their national economy.

On their face, the process of choosing among these skilled workers is much like how universities choose among candidates for tenure: those who are most productive, in the hottest trending fields, win themselves the intellectual freedom of a guaranteed job for life.

Indeed, the skilled worker visa categories both owe much to the university vetting process, and effectively further legitimise that process, standing on the shoulders of the university system by favouring the university graduates of the world.

Yet despite its stable appearances, and the fact that skilled worker visas are annually granted to substantial numbers of migrants, the skilled worker visa category may prove to be particularly fragile.

Buying Shares in Razor Wire

What seems odd about testing migrants for their economic worth is that, really, although it seems to be logical, on closer inspection “skills” are a rather thin veneer to use as an excuse to let some in, and hold others out.

After all, if one runs a cost/benefit analysis on the impact of new migrants generally, as opposed to skilled migrants, the outcome is not so clear as to shut down further debate.

There are probably benefits to hand-picking – to the extent this is really possible on a large scale --but there are costs as well, and how you measure and value both the costs and the benefits is a statistical mire for which any definitive conclusion is likely to remain elusive.

In exchange for a visa, which includes the migrant and quite possibly their spouse and children, the welcoming nation receives the benefit of that migrant’s “skilled work”. Ideally, that migrant is still young enough not to retire any time soon, and bring along enough dosh that they can get themselves established without any financial assistance.

Offering visas to skilled workers places a bet that there is an immediate and ongoing economic advantage to poaching skills developed abroad.

Even if that is true, it is a benefit with quite a bit of tail risk, starting with the dependents, who may not be so intelligent, diligent or skilled as their spouses or parents, despite or perhaps even because of their feverishly productive role models.

Certainly no university offers tenure to a professors’ spouse and children, just because mum or dad received tenure.

Moreover, aside from skills, migrants also bring their cultures with them.

This is where the political debate is likely to continue to heat-up for the foreseeable future, as the line between xenophobia and justifiable concerns about maintaining liberal democratic cultural norms continues to blur throughout Europe in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis.

And these are not just intellectual debates, as producers of razor wire or tear gas would no doubt tell you.

So as those debates grind on, and as many are resolved (at least temporarily) with more fences, we ask the more humble quesiton of whether the benefits that nominally skilled workers impart to a nation are so astonishingly high as to be worth allowing access to the treasures of the kingdom for successful applicants and their heirs.

Or is something else going on here?

Hey, Look Over There!

Perhaps it is more likely that what we are really seeing with so-called skilled worker visas is just a logical-sounding set of excuses, which results in the intellectual “beauty pageant” winners to be allowed in, while keeping the masses unwashed by the benefits of western-style education, out.

If so, the primary benefit of “skilled worker” visas is not that it is a useful system to allow the careful selection and admission of choice skilled workers, or any inherent ability to support a nation’s economic growth targets thereby.

On the contrary, these nominally core reasons may appear as mere rationalisations.

The primary benefit of these programs may well be that upon inspection of the fence and the gate, the public sees only a set of familiar distractions.

The fact that they are familiar is attributable to the degree to which they resemble and build upon the process of applying for admission to higher educational institutions and the like. As a result, these seemingly familiar processes enjoy an inherent sense of legitimacy among their host communities in direct proportion to the extent these communities value the notion of meritocracy.

So what’s not to like?

Well, at the end of the day, you still have more fence than gateway, and fences are not used to admit anyone, they are used only and ever to keep migrants out.

The fact that the gatekeepers have devised some clever tools to adjust how widely the gate opens is merely a side show.

Roll up! Roll up! Step this way!

Of course “side shows” are just inconsequential distractions from something more important happening somewhere else, which someone doesn’t want you to look at too carefully.

Side shows are typically noisily advertised, and may even have their own publicity campaigns. Typically, the only time a bureaucratic process is given its own marketing attention is when there are political machinations rumbling along just out of sight.

So if skilled worker visas and their mechanisms are really just a side show, where is the PR campaign to go along with the introduction of the gateway’s clever tools?

Step right this way: I give you “Express Entry”.

Virtually daily, I explain to clients that Canada’s “Express Entry” system is not a visa, nor a visa category, and that for most applicants it is neither “express” – unless a process that could well stretch to a year or more could ever be called express – nor for the grand majority will it ever result in “entry”.

So what is Express Entry?

Merely this: the public relations moniker of a system for processing visa applications.

Of coaches and pumpkins

Perhaps then we might rightly view skilled worker visa opportunities as less well-grounded in the certainties of human relations than they are in the expediencies of political necessities.

People will continue to wander towards the jobs, resources, mountain vistas and sandy beaches. Upon arrival, they will continue to come across fences, and gates, and be measured and judged by the gatekeepers as to whether they are worthy of entry.

For now, one of the rulers used for measurement is the skilled worker visa, and these policies are by no means arbitrary. But that does not make them invulnerable to arbitrary change.

All the more reason why, if you are considering relying on your skills and educational credentials as a passport to someplace else, we strongly caution against sitting on your eligibility, and waiting for change.

In a world where population growth easily outstrips our leaders’ competencies dealing with shifting geopolitical tensions, that change will come.

In the meantime, there remains the garden variety administrative policy fiddling that may not make much of a difference globally, but may make a very big difference to you.

Either way, history suggests that the future of skilled worker visa coaches, rather than gearing up to introduce free on-board Wi-Fi, are more likely to turn into pumpkins.

So enjoy the ball!

Just don’t stay beyond midnight…


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