Brain waste

Analysis of data previously unavailable to journalists reveals exclusion of skilled migrants from the jobs Europe most needs to fill to prevent economic decline

Europe’s spiralling anxiety over migration is roiling its politics, dominating elections and undermining human rights. People on the move are presented as a drain on the bloc’s resources and a threat to European culture, boosting the profile of nativists and populists, and bringing the far right closer to power. Dissenting voices mostly plead for compassion and battle to uphold the rule of law.

The media focus on spectacle turns statistically minor events, such as the “small boats” in the English channel or horrific shipwrecks in the Central Mediterranean into the main story. But away from the polarised politics the richest bloc of countries in the world is ageing fast and its economies have critical skills shortages that migrants have a key role in filling, potentially preventing imminent economic decline.

It was in this context that one of our reporting fellows, Halima Salat Barre, a journalist who migrated from Kenya to the Netherlands shared her experience with the Lighthouse team. She was told by Dutch job centres that she would never find a job in journalism and should instead look for work in the care sector. After speaking to many migrants across Europe, she knew she wasn’t the only one facing this discrimination. So why, she asked, were EU countries making it so hard for non-natives with college degrees, like herself, to work in fields they were qualified for? Or, in fact, to find any job at all? What was the scale and cost of this neglected migrant talent, known as brain waste?

To answer this question properly we needed data. To get that data we had to persuade Eurostat, the EU’s statistical agency, to treat Lighthouse as a research entity, which would be a first for a journalism organisation. Doing so unlocked access to millions of data points of what actually happens inside Europe’s labour market. That data helped us to compare outcomes for college-educated migrants against the native population; to isolate the countries, regions and professions where brain waste was most acute.

Among the headline findings are that almost half of college-educated migrants in Europe are overqualified for the jobs they are working and nearly twice as likely as natives to be unemployed; that there is near parity in education levels between natives and new arrivals; and that educated migrant women face higher rates of unemployment.

The cost of this structural discrimination is enormous. If migrants worked the same jobs and earned the same wages as comparable natives, the European economy could grow by €33.8 billion. Moreover, after a decade of accelerated degree recognition programs, touted as quick fixes to this enormous waste, these policies have had little impact.

While brain waste is a grim reality across Europe, the root causes, severity and potential barriers to solutions differ drastically depending on the political will and economic reality of each country.

This series will dig into the data to measure the quantifiable reality of brain waste. We will report in depth on the countries and regions where lower prevalence of brain waste suggests possible solutions. And we will document the experiences of college-educated migrants whose path to success has been blocked by structural racism in countries including Spain, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Sweden, Ireland, France and the Netherlands.


Defining Brain Waste

Lighthouse used the European Commission’s definition of brain waste, also in line with the majority of academic research on the topic.

Brain waste is the non-recognition of skills and qualifications acquired by a migrant outside of the EU, which prevents them from fully utilising their potential. We use three main approaches to measuring brain waste:

The rate at which college-educated migrants are overqualified for their current jobs compared to college-educated natives.

The rate at which college educated migrants are unemployed compared to college educated natives.

The rate at which college-educated migrants are underemployed (working fewer hours than they want and are able to) compared to college educated natives.

The Data

We obtained the individual level European Labor Force (ELF) survey from Eurostat for all EU countries plus Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and the United Kingdom (until 2019), with the exception of Germany, whose statistical office said that Lighthouse did not qualify as a research organization. The survey contains more than a hundred variables, covering respondents’ demographic background (age, gender, region of residence etc.) as well as a host of labour market outcomes (employment, wages).

In 2008, 2014, and 2021, the ELF contains additional labor market variables specifically related to immigrants’ labor market performance, including their language skills in the host country language and whether immigrants sought and received recognition of their professional qualifications. These additions were key to understanding the contributing factors to brain waste.

The great advantage of using the ELF is that it has been carried out using a broadly consistent methodology for all EU/EEA member states. This means we can compare how immigrants in one country are faring compared to those in another.

Because the ELF contains many sensitive variables on individuals’ labour market outcomes, we are unable to share the raw data and have to restrict ourselves to disseminating aggregated results in accordance with Eurostat’s anonymization criteria.

To supplement the ELF, we used additional economic data drawn from various EU agencies. A full description of our methodology including pre-processing steps, analysis and findings displayed in interactive charts can be found here.

The Reporting Strategy

Recognizing the polarising nature of migration coverage, we developed an impact strategy that would engage Europe’s leading data journalists, spotlight storytelling by journalists who have faced discrimination themselves and reach out to audiences with content that could engage people in a reasonable and informed conversation about how reducing brain waste could benefit migrants, European economies and society alike.

Working with reporters who had conducted initial interviews with affected communities and migration experts, the data teams from the Financial Times and El Pais developed key research questions to help us and audiences understand the extent, causes and impact of brain waste.

We developed a pipeline to process and analyse the data, adding new research questions as interesting findings surfaced, sparking more questions. The months of the data analysis from this process form the core materials used by reporters to explore the stories and causes of brain waste beyond the data.

The team is committed to putting the people, not the data, front and centre of the investigation and has sought out contributing reporters who both have lived experience of related issues and excel in producing long-form narrative journalism to marry human experience with nuanced explanation of data findings.

Our partner, Unbias the News, recruited journalists from three countries with particularly startling brain waste patterns: Italy, Portugal and Sweden. These journalists are currently developing stories that explain the complex dynamics that lock migrants out of the job market through the stories of the people who have navigated mind boggling processes to get jobs they are qualified for.

We also sought to reach audiences who are highly sceptical of migrants and most vulnerable to the arguments of the radical right. Our partners include print media with a range of political views, as well as a national public broadcaster and private television to ensure our findings are not siloed.

Finally, a goal in this work is to ensure our findings can strengthen the efforts of migrants and civil-society groups working to advocate for fairer migration systems. To achieve this, our reporting process involved discussions with these groups to better identify alignment between our investigation and the solutions they were advocating for to shape our reporting pathways. Post-publication we provided additional findings and research to groups to assist them in data-informed advocacy efforts.


In many places, the economic plight of migrants is a self-fulfilling prophecy: they are locked out of the professional classes and forced into low level positions where they struggle to make a living. They are then blamed for their situation by politicians who point to their cases as failed integration. Often these migrants hold degrees in fields where there are labour shortages in the countries they live in. The victims of these labor shortages, especially in areas like health and education, can mean the next generation of Europeans suffer the consequences of Europe’s inability to tap into migrant talent, a problem only expected to get worse as Europe’s population ages.

The Financial Times reveals the scale at which migrants take jobs below their qualifications, earn less money and find themselves unemployed across Europe. Then it takes a deep dive into three places where educated migrants face very different realities and explore the barriers, opportunities and government policies that shape the journey of migrants seeking jobs that local economies need to fill. In Ireland, the story delves into the barriers for foreign-educated teachers trying to get jobs that would help fill Ireland’s teacher shortage and alleviate the pressure on crowded classrooms. In Portugal, the story explores how, despite economic struggles, Portugal has succeeded in harnessing migrant talent to drive the knowledge economy and boasts one of the lowest rates of brain waste in Europe. Finally, in Sweden, the story investigates the barriers faced by educated refugees in finding appropriate work and the menial jobs they end up working in.

In Spain, a country with one of the highest rates of brain waste in Europe, our partner, El Pais, highlights the country’s failure to make the most out of its talented migrant workforce. The country’s process for “homologación” (degree recognition) has failed thousands of highly qualified migrants, who often wait years for the process to be completed and meanwhile work in menial jobs or do not work at all. In Spain, one in every two people of a migrant background are overqualified for their jobs. One Mexican professional, qualified as an accountant and who worked as a sub-director in a school, now works in cleaning, whilst a Honduran teacher could only find employment in domestic work. For one of Spain’s major trade unions, UGT, the results are concerning, “Spanish employers say they lack workers, but here we have so many people who can’t exercise their profession.” The issue of delays in degree recognition is just one of several factors hurting qualified migrants in Spain. Whilst two out of three of college educated migrant workers in Spain haven’t been able to get recognition are overqualified for their jobs, amongst those who do get the recognition, half still remain in jobs that don’t match their qualifications. Spain has one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe and lacks a diversified economy, meaning there are not enough jobs for a highly educated workforce and many people of a migrant background are funnelled towards tourism, or agriculture jobs. Still, systemic racism plays a key role. For Ahmed Khalifa, president of the Moroccan Association for the Integration of Immigrants, the findings are unsurprising, “There is a glass ceiling that you cannot overcome, which prevents real equality in access to all job opportunities.”


Brain Waste Methodology
April 18, 2024