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Cities Managing Migration: Challenges around Creative Workforce Integration

November 08, 2021
9 min read
Photo credit: Geiger / Shutterstock.com | Migrants from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East learn German in the class of the international school Inlingua in Halle (Saale), Germany.
Work is a key element of the integration process and critical in addressing the social and fiscal challenges of cities managing migration.

In the GMF Cities survey on immigrant workforce integration, skills recognition and certification, language learning, and general education and training on the job were highlighted as key issues; building and maintaining networks with employers was also rated particularly relevant. On the employers’ side, some cities emphasized issues relating to the legal status of immigrants and work permits as common challenges. All the cities in the survey address immigrant integration by multi-stakeholder involvement, including different levels of government (other local departments as well as the regional, national, and international authorities), civil society (associations, NGOs, social movements, trade unions), and the private sector (businesses, business associations, industry representatives). This illustrates the complexity of workforce integration and the high engagement and incentives of all parties involved therein at the local level.

(Labor) Immigration Law and Recruitment of Workforce

Immigration is an important way to make up for labor shortages and/or a skills mismatch, which local economies in North America and Europe are experiencing. Bristol and other British cities noticed a skills shortage in the health sector in the aftermath of BREXIT, particularly with regard to nurses. Amsterdam has a labor demand of teachers, carpenters, and bricklayers, while the Netherlands recorded the highest numbers of unfilled vacancies ever, half of which are in trade, business services, and the health care sector, but a large number of vacancies are also found in the catering sector due to the pandemic. Detlef Scheele, Germany’s Head of the Federal Employment Agency, said in August 2021 that the country would need 400,000 immigrants per year to offset the shortage of skilled workers; in 2020, that number was 200,900. U.S. cities such as Boston are facing a shortage of skilled employees in technology, manufacturing, and construction.

Cities and local employers in Finland, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States are helping to facilitate labor immigration and introducing new policies to simplify the process of obtaining residence permits. For example, President Joe Biden’s new immigration bill includes a pilot program that provides 10,000 Heartland Visas, a concept first suggested in 2019 by the U.S.-based Economic Innovation Group, to labor immigrants working in shrinking cities and towns.

Visas, stipends, bilateral agreements, and favorable policies for student immigrants have been introduced on a national level, but these alone are not enough to channel the immigrant workforce to the places they are needed. In particular, cities and towns that are not internationally known metropolises need to raise awareness, promote opportunities, and establish networks with multipliers in their own country and abroad. To do so, it is helpful to identify and use existing relations and resources, including connections established through town twinning, which may be strengthened by offering internships, jobs, and exchange programs, among others. Moreover, private relationships and/or the language skills of local employees in the city administration, local NGOs, companies or church communities may support international recruitment by awareness raising and networking.

It is important to foster the workforce of the immigrants already part of the local community as they comprise a large, untapped potential (of skills) for local employers that is often neglected. Newly arrived immigrants may need training and/or language courses and may face high bureaucratic hurdles to achieving the professional recognition they received abroad. However, these requirements might be incompatible with the need to find a job as soon as possible to sustain themselves in the host country. Therefore, both cities and immigrants alike profit from the investments of local communities, employers, labor and professional unions, as well as NGOs in education, training, and professional recognition to support and match the foreign workforce with the demands of the local economy.

Newly arrived immigrants may need training and/or language courses and may face high bureaucratic hurdles to achieving the professional recognition they received abroad.

Naturalization of undocumented immigrants is often overlooked as a way to decrease skills shortages. Recently, the states of Colorado, Indiana, Nebraska, Nevada, and New Jersey have passed laws that allow undocumented workers to obtain professional licenses. It is worthwhile to explore the extent that local employers use the opportunities afforded by the new laws.

Provide Information and Guidance for Workforce Integration

Cities and employers can do a lot to help orient newcomers, including providing relevant information on labor market opportunities. Most importantly, however, they can provide guidance on formalities, visa requirements, and the bureaucracy that comes with labor immigration processes. In background interviews, labor immigrants mention the vicious circle of bureaucratic procedures in obtaining work visas as being particularly stressful. Local authorities, therefore, should give information on what is required and in what sequence to help immigrants overcome these practical challenges as early as possible.

In background interviews conducted in summer 2021, skilled and highly skilled labor immigrants from Latin America who have worked in several European countries noted that Amsterdam in particular, and cities in the Netherlands in general, do an exemplary job of facilitating labor immigration, integration, and onboarding in local companies.

Match Immigrant Workforce with Local Employers

Employer discrimination against immigrants is a barrier mentioned in the CMM survey, and some apps and platforms offer jobs specifically from employers willing to hire immigrants. One example is Work For Refugees, a nonprofit project by the NGO Paritätischer Wohlfahrtsverband and the Berlin Senate of Integration Labor and Social Affairs that connects employers and refugee workers in Berlin. A similar platform is Erfolgspaten, which aims to facilitate workforce integration of refugees in Potsdam and the state of Brandenburg.

Immigrants also need to know how to apply for jobs and the documents and certificates necessary for an application, as well as how to effectively share those files with relevant local stakeholders such as integration managers and consultants in job centers or employers. For this objective, local stakeholders in the Rhine-Neckar district in Germany developed the databank MoBio, which meets high data protection standards while allowing immigrants and refugees to save important documents and share them with relevant parties, as well as plan integration goals with integration managers or job agents. Information on the tool and declarations of consent are available in five different languages: German, English, French, Arabic, and Farsi.

Recognition of Foreign Skills and Diplomas

As noted earlier, successful workforce integration depends strongly on the extent that the educational achievements and practical skills of immigrants are transferable to the local labor market. To this end, the recognition of foreign diplomas or non-certified skills is key in making use of the immigrants’ potential in the local labor market and ensuring their ability to sustain themselves and their families. It is thus not surprising that nearly all the cities that participated in the GMF Cities survey highlighted skills recognition as one of the main priorities for immigrant integration in the labor market.

It is thus not surprising that nearly all the cities that participated in the GMF Cities survey highlighted skills recognition as one of the main priorities for immigrant integration in the labor market.

This is especially challenging as educational systems vary by country, yielding different kinds of job profiles; even immigrants with certified skills and highly skilled immigrants may need to enroll in reskilling programs to qualify for a suitable job.i  Without a formal diploma, immigrants might have non-certified skills, which are valuable to identify. Hence, depending on the sector and the job, the Guide of the International Labour Organization outlines specific, competency-based assessment procedures based on testing, work simulation, and work observation.

An outstanding network bringing relevant stakeholders together at the local, national, and international levels is the Integration through Qualification (IQ) in Germany. It is a program funded by the Ministry for Labor and Social Affairs (BMAS) and the European Social Fund (ESF), which cooperates with the employment agencies and the Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) and aims to improve employment opportunities for people with a migration background. In line with the European Recognition Directive and the Federal Recognition Act in Germany, one of its main objectives is to help people with foreign professional qualifications acquire employment appropriate to their level of education, regardless of residence status. IQ gives advice on credential recognition, offers job training, supports the development of intercultural competence of key labor market stakeholders, and advises employers on opportunities and procedures for skilled-worker immigration.

Qualification and Training for Re- and Upskilling of Immigrants

Skills recognition and matching an immigrant workforce to the local labor market needs often go along with (language) education and further professional training. In order to support this aspect of labor market integration, many integration measures, consultation services, and language courses (for profession- or sector-specific terminology) have been developed by language schools and community colleges, for example. Labor and professional unions are also important stakeholders for re- and upskilling, in addition to employers themselves.

An example of a comprehensive good practice is the Helsinki Skills Center, which “combines linguistic and vocational training into a functional whole” to train immigrants for local labor market needs. In addition to providing support in various languages, such as Arabic, Somali, and English, the center uses digitality and robotics, and organizes virtual workshops. Their most innovative technical support is a robot that helps immigrants practice dialogue with customers to prepare them for a job in the service sector. This robot can be programmed for different jobs and situations with potential customers that are polite, friendly, or even harsh.

Make Use of Digitalization and Remote Work

Cities that need more (foreign) workers but have housing shortages and want to make better use of international talent may take advantage of the opportunities afforded by digitalization and remote work. Smaller cities and towns and remote rural areas that have been shrinking can also benefit: employees could remain in hometowns that offer limited labor opportunities or enjoy beautiful landscapes, fresh air, and tranquility while still being able to work for (international) companies abroad. The web portal for job seekers DirectlyApply conducted a study focusing on average salaries, English language proficiency, and the proportion of jobs offered as remote positions for cities in 44 European countries. This study found that the top five European cities most prepared for employing international remote workers in 2021 are: 1. Stockholm, 2. Bern, 3. Reykjavík, 4. Amsterdam, 5. Luxembourg.

The points above address some of the important steps and aspects of creative workforce integration that are being explored in the Cities Managing Migration project. It is important for cities and countries internationally to pay attention to the innovative policies on attracting and integrating newcomers into the workforce taking place at the local level and to the barriers and key challenges that need to be resolved in order to increasingly leverage work as a force for integration and to boost local and regional economies.


GMF’s Cities Managing Migration brings together a transatlantic, multi-city cohort to share and explore city practice and the role of cities in migration and integration policies at the local, national, and international levels. Specifically, cities will be convened around the topics of creative workforce integration, bridging borders, rural cities and towns, human-centered security, and diversity in civic life and leadership.

  • iHeimann, Christiane (2020): Curse and blessing of intra-EU labour mobility – Free labour movement in Spain, Germany and the UK. Book series: Studien zur Migrations- und Integrationspolitik. VS Springer.