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Donkin on Work - Recruitment

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 field.

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 personality.

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 company.

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 ageing society.

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 recruiting strategies.

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 Stepstone ( and the Intelligence Group (, price Euros 295. For details email: [email protected]

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved