December 2006 – Cross-border recruitment in Europe
A few weeks ago I was approached about the possibility
of undertaking a job in Switzerland. It appealed in many
ways. It was a senior position that would require a lot
of travelling. There would be plenty of opportunities for
smooching with movers and shakers and the boss to whom I
would answer is one of the most respected figures in his
The biggest lure, however, was the opportunity to work
for a programme that has the potential to make a real difference
among some of the most disadvantaged communities within
the developing world. Had the work been contractual or in
a consulting capacity I might have been tempted, but it
was a full time job working in a political arena characterised
by petty formalities, procedures and protocols.
Part of the job, I was told, would be managing a “mercurial”
boss. It rang alarm bells. That kind of management requires
calmness, efficiency and a steady temperament, none of the
qualities that I or anyone else has associated with my own
Another issue was the idea of moving to Switzerland. I
go along with Orson Welles’ description of the Swiss
in The Third Man: “In Italy, for thirty years under
the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed,
but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the
Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they
had 500 years of democracy and peace - and what did that
produce? The cuckoo clock.”
I appreciate the comment is massively unfair, but it helps
to explain why, in spite of attempts to improve the free
movement of labour across Europe, there remains a deep attachment
among most Europeans to the country of their birth. I like
living in Britain.
A new study of recruitment issues in the European labour
market, The International Recruitment Manual* appears to
confirm this perception. About five per cent of the EU’s
resident population, it says, are non-nationals of the member
states. But less than two per cent of these non-nationals
are EU nationals of other member states.
In spite of all that has been written and reported about
cross-border migration in Europe, the study points out that
the annual mobility of EU nationals between member states
is less than 0.4 per cent.
But this comparatively small degree of movement is hiding
a much greater willingness to move, particularly among the
younger generation, according to the study published jointly
by StepStone, the web-based recruitment company, and the
Intelligence Group, a Netherlands-based employment research
Vladimir Spidla, European Commissioner for Employment,
Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities has blamed legal,
administrative and linguistic obstacles to worker mobility,
together with a lack of knowledge available to many employees
about the advantages of working in another country or sector.
I wouldn’t disagree with his analysis. But might
there not be another reason – that in spite of their
grumbles, many people remain attached to the land of their
birth? This should not seem so remarkable in a Europe that
draws on a deep well of national and regional traditions,
often founded on historical and linguistic differences.
With more than 450m citizens, the EU is potentially one
of the world’s largest labour markets. But it remains
difficult, in spite of various attempts at harmonization
of labour qualifications, such as the Bologna agreement
covering degrees across 40 countries by 2010, to view Europe
as a single market for labour.
In the UK it is arguable that there is a greater affinity
and ease of access to those parts of the globe that used
to be coloured pink than to any country in mainland Europe.
Geographical proximity is less important in the international
labour market than a common language.
Yet, as the study makes clear, cross-border recruitment
and movement of employees within European is becoming increasingly
important for multinational employers with a significant
EU presence. Falling fertility rates coupled with lengthening
life-spans is transforming the European labour market.
Demographic projections, says the study, are pointing to
a 20m reduction in the EU labour force by 2030. Not only
will the reduced flow of younger workers in to the labour
force increase the need for more older workers, some sectors,
such as healthcare and elder care, for example, are going
to need a big influx of skills to meet the demands of an
I do not subscribe to the view that such a big reduction
in the labour force should equate to a corresponding shortage
of skills, since improved communications and internet technology
is easing the flow of information work across borders allowing
work to be taken to employees.
This equates to the knowledge-industry equivalent of moving
assembly, where knowledge can be disseminated across a “virtual”
plane. Often this can involve a relocation of certain jobs
to cheaper labour markets where specific skills may be abundant,
such as India where the number of information technology
graduates continues to increase year on year.
Increased automation will also take up some slack and more
efficient use of information systems should reduce the need
for many existing administrative jobs.
But this does not lessen the need to improve cross-border
recruitment in the short-term, highlighted in the study,
which drew on research among 2,171 companies across eight
European countries (Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the
Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the UK). It also tapped
in to feedback from nearly 21,000 employees who completed
questionnaires on the StepStone web site.
Some 68 per cent of men questioned in the survey said they
were willing to work in a foreign country compared with
54 percent of women. In the UK some 88 per cent of employees
– the highest proportion in Europe – say they
are willing to work abroad, followed by the Swedes (72 per
cent) and the Germans (71 per cent).
The most popular motive for working abroad is to broaden
experience, followed by career development and the opportunity
to find a more attractive job. The US is marginally ahead
of the UK as the most popular country to work in, with France
edging out Spain and Canada for third place.
The study highlighted the popularity of job boards in cross-border
job search but that might be expected given the method of
sourcing respondents. The high percentage (74 per cent)
of employees between the ages of 25 and 44, however, reflect
a strong proportion of skilled professional workers.
In most of the countries covered by the research, the job
sectors in which recruiters were experiencing the most difficulty
filling posts were engineering and technical jobs, IT and
telecommunications, sales, retail and purchasing. UK recruiters
were saying that marketing, advertising and public relations
staff were also hard to find.
Combining the feedback from recruiters and employers, the
manual has assembled ideal profiles of the type of people
most willing to work in various countries. This could prove
useful to companies seeking to refine their cross-border
None of this will make me any more eager to work abroad
but it does place me in a minority. A new generation is
on the move and it’s telling us that it is prepared
to travel and work anywhere if a recruiter can demonstrate
that a job has prospects. In the meantime Europe remains
a long way from the EU ideal of a common market for jobs.
Recruiters have their work cut out.
*The International recruitment manual, A study on how
to recruit efficiently and effectively in the European labour
market, by L Y Stamet and G J M Waasdorp, is published by
and the Intelligence Group (www.intelligence-group.nl),
price Euros 295. For details email: [email protected]