Politics & Society

Unlocking Third-Country Nationals' Full Potential to Feed in the EU Future of Work

In her 2022 State of the Union address, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that 2023 would be the European Year of Skills. She listed several measures needed to counter shortfalls in the workforce and stressed the need to attract workers with the right skills to help companies and strengthen Europe’s growth.

As a first important step, she recognized the “need to speed up and facilitate the recognition of qualifications also of third-country nationals”, to make Europe more attractive for skilled workers. Indeed, as its economy faces new environmental and technological challenges, and as its population ages, the EU should attract more third-country nationals who can help fill skills shortages and respond to the “new world of work”.

Although incomplete and somewhat patchy, EU common immigration policy, which has developed since the early 2000s based on competences shared with the member states, still achieved harmonized conditions, procedures and rights for third-country nationals. The policy, in particular, simplified some administrative procedures, increased legal certainty and predictability, and improved the recognition of rights across the EU for “equal treatment” of third-country workers. However, so far, no harmonized binding rules have been set in place to recognize qualifications and skills of immigrant workers.

A distinction should be made here between professional and academic qualifications, as well as skills, whether formal or informal, which are often addressed jointly. The recognition of academic qualifications, which operates around the acquired learning outcomes, is now established within the EU. The European Council recently reaffirmed its commitment to “further steps to make automatic mutual recognition in education and training a reality”. The practical transparency tools developed in this framework, as well as tools for skills assessments, are not directed to qualifications acquired outside the EU but could be extended to those, and fully include third-country nationals, like the EU Skills Profile Tool for Third Country Nationals or what was recently done for Ukrainians fleeing war (see below.) On the contrary, third-country nationals are generally excluded from the scope of the 2005 Directive that established a system for recognition of professional qualifications. The logic here is to look into the professional status in the country of origin and the rights this status opened there. Member states developed their own systems, generally involving a multiplicity of actors, making the steps difficult to understand and to use by thirdcountry nationals and employers.

Within the current sharing of competences between the EU and member states, the EU could provide common standards, thus facilitating mobility of third-country nationals and easing their integration. Indeed, in the absence of a harmonized and clear system of recognition of skills and qualifications of third-country nationals in the EU, hence of mutual recognition among member states, non-EU citizens are generally not entitled to “free movement” within the bloc. This limits their employability on EU territory. Procedures for recognition can be lengthy and cumbersome, leading employers to hesitate making employment offers to third-country nationals and instead preferring to hire EU citizens.

Third-country workers are more often overqualified for their employment than their EU counterparts are. Eurostat, the official EU data collector and analyzer, defines overqualified employed people as “persons with a tertiary level of educational attainment working in low- or medium-skilled occupations”. This is commonly referred to as a “vertical” skills mismatch. Eurostat indicators of integration show that tertiary-educated persons who are foreign-born or foreign citizens appear to have a less positive employment situation, and their formal qualifications are more likely to be not—or not fully—used in the labor market. In 2022 in EU member states, the average over-qualification rate of non-EU-born immigrants aged 20 to 64 was around 40%, while the corresponding figures for natives and EU-born workers were, respectively, just above 20% and 30%.

Underemployment and over-qualification might result from several factors. There is insufficient data to fully assess the impact of the lack of recognition of foreign qualifications. However, statistical evidence of the positive impact of recognition of foreign qualifications for migrant employability has been collected. Difficulties that immigrants face having their qualifications and skills recognized are widely identified and negatively affect their access to the labor market. Moreover, there is a wide gap between the legal provisions in place and their implementation in most member states.

The matter goes beyond economic considerations around skills mismatch or individual “brain-waste”. Eventually, better integration and consideration of migrants is a question of survival for the EU and its “way of life”. Increasingly polarized societies and political debates put social cohesion at risk. In many countries, immigration is a contentious topic although it contributes to the wealth of countries of destination. Studies show that migrants contribute more to their host societies’ economies via spending and taxes than they benefit and, although more difficult to measure, to the society and culture at large. The contribution of immigrants was particularly evident during the COVID-19 period, as migrant workers are more represented in low- and medium-skilled-jobs that were “front-liners” during the pandemic. Migration in itself is a source of dynamism, with migrants being overrepresented in innovation and patents, arts and sciences awards, startups and successful companies. It is, therefore, in the interest of the host society and of the migrants themselves to help unleash migrants’ full potential.

Recently, EU efforts and recommendations were particularly directed at easing recognition of skills and qualifications of Ukrainians, with specific tools and a set of recommendations issued by the European Commission shortly after the Russian invasion. While recognition of qualifications and skills of all other third-country nationals moving to the EU, in particular those who are not entitled to international protection, mainly remains left to the discretion of national systems (or the absence thereof), lessons can be learned from this “Ukrainians-only” policy development. The European Commission published its first feedback, which shows that in spite of significant variations of implementation, member states “have made significant strides in facilitating the integration of Ukrainian professionals”, especially in the fields of health and teaching. EU tools used to facilitate integration were also evaluated positively.

The main lesson of the experience with Ukrainians may be that recognition mechanisms can be swiftly set in place to ease integration in the labor market when the political will to do so exists. That has left stakeholders, including businesses, raising the question: Why not set up a system to extend similar measures to other third-country nationals?


FOR EU MEMBER STATES: Qualifications acquired in non-EU countries need to be recognized faster and more easily, for all categories of migrants including undocumented workers:

  • Procedures for recognizing qualifications should be quick, fair, transparent and affordable.
  • Assessment of migrants’ skills should also be more effective and faster, upskilling and reskilling training should be continuously supported, including through validation procedures for non-formal and informal learning.
  • Fragmentation of the responsibility for assessing and recognizing qualifications and competences is to be avoided. “One-stop shops” or single “contact points” concentrating all services involved are recommended. Coordination among all authorities involved is necessary.
  • Early recognition of foreign qualifications is key, whether through pre-departure assessments or programs for migrants upon arrival in the EU.

FOR EU MEMBER STATES AND EU INSTITUTIONS: Easier conditions such as those offered to Ukrainians, the sole beneficiaries of the Temporary Protection Directive, for the recognition of their qualifications and for accessing the labor market, should be extended to all third-country nationals legally residing in the EU, for the benefit of all and to ensure equal treatment before the law.

FOR EU INSTITUTIONS: To date, the European Commission has not fully responded to the European Parliament call for “the creation of a framework for validation and recognition of the skills and qualifications of third-country nationals, including vocational training, based on objective and uniform criteria, to facilitate their early integration into the labour market.” The Commission just published recommendations on recognizing third-country qualifications in a “Skills and Talent Mobility” package that also includes a legislative proposal for an EU “Talent Pool”. The latter could be a way to facilitate use of migrants’ skills and qualifications by better matching non-EU workers and EU employers. As for the former, the recommendations take inspiration from a 2005 directive41 that sets out the system of recognition of professional qualifications in the EU and draws on experience with the implementation of the April 2022 Commission recommendation on facilitating the recognition of qualifications for people fleeing Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. However, the legal form of the instrument, i.e., non-binding Commission recommendations, leaves the matter to the discretion of member states. Moreover, the Commission’s timing for publication left too little time for any new legislative initiative to be adopted before the end of the current EU parliamentary mandate. Recommendations could still be useful if intended as a first step towards binding proposals in the next legislature, which will be elected in June 2024.


  • A common system for the recognition of skills of third-coun try nationals in the EU should be adopted with common standards and procedures. A legally sound path to this would be extending the scope of Directive 2005/36ECto include third-country nationals and creating a unified and harmonized system for the recognition of third-country qualifications.
  • The EU legal migration framework should be revised to enhance rights to intra-EU mobility for third-country nationals and to achieve full equal treatment for third-country nationals residing and working in the EU.
  • A common system for recognizing qualifications should not be seen in isolation but as part of labor migration instruments, such as the Single Permit Directive, which is being recast to impose simplified and faster procedures for work permits.
  • Welcoming more third-country students can also be a way for migrants to obtain the skills and qualifications needed in EU labor markets.
  • Skills mobility partnerships with third countries are another means by which EU countries may finance the training of potential migrants in their country of origin and provide them with entry upon certification. So far, however, experiments in the field of labor migration partnerships are limited in number and reproducibility.

FOR ALL LEVELS OF POLICYMAKING (EU, NATIONAL, REGIONAL, LOCAL): Better use of foreigners’ competences by facilitating their recognition would help establish a more positive narrative and depoliticize the conversation about migration. Such a narrative is sorely needed given the facts and figures about migrants’ contributions to societies as a whole and economies in particular. It could also enhance efforts to adapt work to an increasingly digital and green environment.

The opinions expressed in this document are the sole responsibility of the author and do not represent an official position of the European Parliament.


Originally published
in System Updates: Resetting the Future of Work

Celine Chateau