Wednesday, September 28, 2022

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The Privilege of Staying Home: COVID and the Highly Skilled Workforce

Yves here. As much as working at home has long suited me well, given that I am allergic to meetings and office politics, it’s created new layers of class inequality, not just the super rich and executive classes living each in their own strata, but the mere middle class knowledge workers now free of daily commutes…at the cost of sometimes having to contend with kids underfoot.

While sheltering in place is clearly preferable to having to turn up and face probable Covid-carrying co-workers and customers, I am still bothered by the loss of international travel. Not that I have any near term intent of going abroad, both for cost and time reasons on top of Covid concerns. But I do recall fondly seeing the world on the McKinsey plan, getting a big international junket on one of my independent consulting gigs (albeit having to work all the time during it), and doing some travel abroad on my own dime.

The mention of a nomad visa in this piece particularly triggered me, because it is the sort of thing I ought to be looking into. Given that the US is becoming ever more a predatory/rentier society, and the elderly make for easy pickings, I really need to become an expat. But Covid means I can’t even do due diligence even if money weren’t an obstacle. For instance, I have been briefly to Croatia and Costa Rica and spent a teeny bit more time in Portugal, but not enough to have more than the general impression, “Nice places, tourist friendly” which is hardly enough info on which to base a relocation decision. And they aren’t the only spots theoretically on the list.

That is a bit long-winded way of saying the mobility of knowledge workers isn’t as freewheeling as this piece implies. But the other leg of the argument, the great advantage of being able to (try to) weather the pandemic at home still stands.

By Agnieszka Weinar, an adjunct research professor at the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at Carleton University and previously a a scientific coordinator and research fellow, at the European University Institute in Florence and a policy officer at the European Commission. Originally published at openDemocracy

The COVID pandemic changed the way we look at the privilege of mobility. If, before the pandemic, moving across borders was a perk of being highly skilled, then during the pandemic we have seen a new privilege emerge: immobility.

Historically, mobility has been associated with two types of privilege, coming from financial or cultural capital. In other words, the wealthy or highly educated (or both) could enjoy lower-risk and relatively easier global mobility. Think about the ‘global professionals’ or ‘globally mobile elites’ or the ‘global race for talent’. Having either skills or money meant that the world was within reach and that the mobility limitations linked to a passport could be easier to overcome than for the rest of society.

The pandemic that brought the world to a halt in 2020 exacerbated the privilege of mobility and underscored the importance of capital or skills, as all pandemics in history have done.

In 2020, people who had either the capital or the skills that allowed them to be mobile while not suffering economically, hopped the planet to ride out the storm. Singapore, for example, became a popular hideout for the Asian super-rich, with its low infection rates and rather limited sanitary restrictions.

Those without capital but with the right set of skills and a good internet connection could choose to benefit from new policy developments. For example, a digital nomad visa in Croatia allowed many mid-level, highly skilled migrants with precarious job status to achieve a lifestyle they would not be able to afford if they had stayed in super-expensive urban hot spots by working remotely.

Anecdotal evidence shows that temporary labour migrants coming from countries with similar healthcare standards – for example workers in the European Union or Europeans working in the US or Canada – took the decision to go back to their home countries, and work from there.

The Privilege of Staying Put

However, the pandemic brought about a new phenomenon: staying put on one’s own terms.

The privilege of mobility turned into a privilege of immobility: choosing to stay immobile and still be safe. Those who could afford to do their jobs from home could do so – but only 25% of all workers in the US could actually work fully from home.

The ability to work from home was also the result of either financial capital, or a specific skill set.

Migrants who could do their jobs online could more easily keep working or find new jobs than those whose work requires their presence on location. This meant that highly skilled migrants in the so-called ‘non-essential’ occupations were less impacted by the lockdown than other groups.

This privilege of immobility is also visible in the practice of hiring employees for positions across the world without them moving countries. Hiring remotely to virtual offices has become more palatable to employers, while the workers have adjusted to new requirements. This trend – the growth of remote work, spanning time zones – is one of the biggest unknowns of the post-pandemic labour market.

Immobility has not always been experienced as a privilege by the highly skilled, however. For many highly skilled migrants hoping to move to a new country, the pandemic has meant difficult delays. In a prime destination for migration like Canada for example, immigration halved, leaving thousands of highly skilled migrants waiting for an unknown future.

What Next?

It is too early to understand the full impact of the pandemic on the mobility of highly skilled migrants. Mostly because the mobility data is still unavailable and the studies are ongoing. Yet, the future of highly skilled mobility itself will be one of the most important impacts of the pandemic. As companies move towards virtual office models, it may be that international recruitment will become redundant and the race for talent will move entirely online.

The potential for reducing highly skilled immigration and better utilising global skill pools through remote work is enormous. However, such a trend can bring about major societal changes and upheavals. One consequence might be a larger pool of virtual in-country workers: those who are ready to work and use their skills but would not move between regions, can now be hired to work for companies far away within the same country.

Another consequence might be the mass migration of highly skilled jobs to workers based abroad, with internationally marketable skills. In such a scenario, migration policies will focus mainly on low-skilled workers, who often risk their lives to move abroad. Any post-pandemic migration policy should take these trends into account.

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