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Skilled Immigrants in the Global Economy: Prospects for International Cooperation on Recognition of Foreign Qualifications
December 2013

Skilled Immigrants in the Global Economy: Prospects for International Cooperation on Recognition of Foreign Qualifications

Skilled migration is an important resource for governments seeking to build their country’s human-capital base and make the most of global trade and investment opportunities. But immigrants’ economic contribution depends on their ability to use their skills productively in destination countries. In many cases, migrant professionals face barriers transferring their skills and experience across borders. International agreements on the recognition of foreign qualifications can lessen these barriers. This report analyzes the road to such mutual recognition agreements (MRAs), discussing the successes and challenges of existing MRAs and evaluating the prospects for cooperation between the United States and the European Union (EU).

One barrier to transferring skills across borders is professional regulation. Domestic regulations to restrict entry into professional occupations and protect the public from poorly qualified practitioners were, in most cases, designed decades or even centuries ago—when policymakers could not have contemplated current levels of global mobility and economic interdependence. These systems are less equipped to deal with foreign-trained practitioners, who must often undergo time-consuming and expensive assessment or training to demonstrate their competence.

MRAs—negotiated between governments and professional associations in several countries—have set out clear rules for licensing practitioners who move between signatory countries. Their goal is to reduce, or even eliminate, the need for case-by-case assessments when applicants have been trained in systems conferring essentially comparable skills and knowledge. MRAs can also facilitate licensing for workers who have relatively small skills deficits that they can make up through a tailored program of training or additional work experience.

But reaching agreements on mutual recognition is no easy feat. National governments do not control all the policy levers, often relying on professional associations and subnational governments’ willingness to participate in negotiations. In many cases, no single organization or government department can be empowered to negotiate an agreement, creating a formidable coordination challenge. In addition, states and other subnational jurisdictions often form a complicated patchwork of licensing rules. Designing an agreement that suits all parties is thus a labor-intensive task from both technical and political perspectives. Because of these challenges, MRAs concluded to date have often been limited in scope, notwithstanding some significant exceptions that include recognition policies within the European Union.

Nonetheless, national governments and EU policymakers can facilitate mutual recognition in several ways. They can contribute political leadership and put pressure on professional associations and national or subnational government departments to move toward agreement; provide funding for ongoing dialogue with international partners; and create an institutional framework, such as a free trade deal, that can give MRA negotiations momentum by making them legally binding, introducing monitoring mechanisms, and setting out a timetable for action.

Table of Contents 

I.  Introduction

The Role of International Cooperation

II.  How Do Mutual Recognition Agreements Work?

A.  Automatic Recognition

B.  Partial Recognition

C.  Limited-Scope Recognition

D.  Temporary Access

III.  Challenges in Reaching and Implementing Mutual Recognition Agreements

A.  Bringing the Right People to the Table: Who Negotiates?

B.  Creating Momentum

C.  Ensuring Effective Implementation

IV.  Recognizing Qualifications Across the Atlantic: Prospects for EU-U.S. Cooperation

A.  Mutual Recognition Across the Atlantic: Can It Happen?

B.  Challenges for EU-U.S. MRA Negotiations

C.  Mobility and the EU-U.S. Trade Deal

V.  Conclusions and Outlook