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Graduate mobility: motivated by economics or wanderlust and ‘a surf at lunchtime’?

Trinity researchers are comparing strategies of Irish graduates overseas with those of young Polish migrants in Ireland in the 2000s

Mon, Apr 15, 2013, 08:00


Sally Daly

When it comes to migration, we must withdraw from an exclusive focus on economic motivations and recognise the growing importance of more diverse and apparently non-economic incentives.

The Learning from Poland/Irish Abroad Study project is looking at the strategies of Irish graduates in overseas labour markets and comparing these with those of young Polish migrants entering the Irish labour market in the 2000s. Having followed a Polish sample over five years, we are now looking at an Irish cohort and are interested in the lessons for wider European and transnational mobility today, and conducting an online survey of undergraduate degree holders.

On a recent research trip, we interviewed 37 Irish graduates along with recruitment companies, employers and academics. The fieldtrip kicked off with an interview in a café in Clapham, appropriate given the draw this area has for young Irish migrants. The interviewee surmised that the decision on where to go was led by one of two factors – people either opt for a particular lifestyle or choose to stay close to their families:

“It’s what people want, some people want to be near family, some people near a beach. I went to Australia and of course there is an extremely high standard of living but, at the same time you weigh up a lot of things in life, I can only speak for myself. My goal is not money, it is happiness. I’m from a close family … I want to be relatively close to home.” (Mike, London based recruitment consultant, age 26).

We learned from the Polish sample that motives can change over time. This corresponds with the actions of Mike who had been attracted by the warm climate and corresponding lifestyle in Australia but did an about-turn and headed north. In doing this, he left his qualification and former career in IT to rest on the shelf and turned to recruitment. Wanderlust was his motivation for emigrating rather than the recession, the idea that in Australia, you could “surf at lunchtime”. Yet, at 26, how representative is his experience of other graduates?

We choose to focus on Australia and the UK, with the UK still receiving the lion’s share of Irish emigrants and Australia having increased its intake significantly in recent years. We settled on three cities: London, Sydney and Melbourne for our site based fieldwork, as well as conducting phone interviews with people in Perth.

Following a plan?

Initial findings revealed a clear disparity between those with planned strategies and those with a less thought through approach. The latter group include adventure seekers but also  individuals with naive assumptions about the availability of work. This is an important consideration in Australia where specific visa conditions attached to employment can limit mobility. What is true for all graduates consulted is a perception about the availability of work in these destinations.

When our Polish sample migrated in the 2000s, Ireland was enjoying boom employment with unemployment at just 5 per cent for most of that time. Currently employment is at 14 per cent in Ireland.

London 2013

London remains the most popular destination for Irish emigrants. CSO figures show 19,000 Irish and other foreign nationals moved there in the 12 months prior to April 2012. The London Irish Centre in their recent publication ‘Fresh Perspectives’ surveyed 140 people aged 18-35 who moved to London in 2012 and found recent migrants achieve well in terms of employment, with 55.9 per cent in intermediate managerial, administrative, professional occupations.

Australia 2013

Australia is also a popular a destination for graduates. With approximately 15,000 Irish people in Australia on working holiday visas, Ireland has the fifth-highest representation of any country. Recent trends in working holiday visa use in Australia show that this is being used as a route to skilled migration and not just as a holiday/life experience option.

The number of Irish workers granted four-year, employer sponsored 457 visas has increased 18.4 per cent to 3,670 in the second half of 2012. But with a Labour government seeking re-election, there is something of a backlash against 457 visa holders. Similar to Ireland during the boom, the tendency to ‘buy-in’ labour from overseas is being discussed in the context of labour market deregulation. This is portrayed as a real threat in Australia where the unions have enjoyed the kind of power long since relegated in other parts of the world.

The lure of the city

The cost of living in the cities is high and moving to any of the destinations studied without an employment strategy can prove a significant challenge, as a number of participants indicated. However, once employment is secured, salaries are broadly speaking commensurate with the cost of living. In addition, a greater focus on life outside work makes Australia a popular destination, as one graduate says:

“I do think the quality of life is better here. The weather is a big part of it … You can go and meet up with a gang and have a barbecue at the beach at the weekend. I think you just start taking it for granted.” (Louise, Sydney based traffic controller, age 27).

Graduate mobility

Labour mobility across borders may be seen as an opportunity. In that way graduates may be looking outward to more distant labour markets eschewing possibilities at home. The association between graduates and migration is long established, especially in sectors like financial services, construction and IT. Study and summer work abroad (eg the J1 visa) are now routine elements of the third level experience for many students.

Private interests and recruitment

Recruitment events like the Jobs Expo and Working Abroad Expo have contributed to putting destinations like Canada and Australia on the map as part of a planned migration strategy. These events also highlight the role of the state, private recruitment companies and private organisations in facilitating the supply and demand of overseas workers. The role of private interest groups in greasing the wheels of this demand are worth further consideration.

Limitations on mobility?

It is increasingly recognised that migration today can take many different forms, of which a permanent move from one country to another is an extreme case. This is one reason why researchers are beginning to talk about “mobility” rather than just “migration”. While graduates seem to be especially involved in these new forms of mobility, graduates themselves are very diverse. Not all degrees are equal and graduate status does not necessarily equate to a universal “skills toolbox” effortlessly transferable across borders. Furthermore, in the context of graduate mobility flows, temporary migration plans can be transformed into long term settlement (as we continue to see with some of our Polish group) and yet mobility even for middle class “free movers” can have its limitations. This may include limited ability to inform or change the places to which they have migrated7.

Looking ahead

Early indications suggest that some graduates find opportunities abroad that might have been unimaginable for them in Ireland:

“In Australia, even in comparison to Ireland during the boom times, there are much better opportunities here, especially for younger people with less experience. They really don’t mind giving younger people responsibility over here. They will happily do it. It is much, much different at home, especially in local government. Your age determines a lot of stuff. (Daniel, Melbourne based town planner8, age 35).

Now that we are back from the field, it is time to get on with the analysis. In truth, there is a deficit to our understanding on the range of reasons why graduates pack a suitcase and purchase an online plane ticket. What is clear though is that we must withdraw from an exclusive focus on economic motivations and recognise the growing importance of more diverse and apparently non-economic incentives even for high-skilled groups. This was certainly the case for the Polish migrants in our sample. Perhaps that is the first lesson we have learned from our comparison with migration from Poland.

The Irish Graduates Abroad Survey: We have just launched The Irish Graduates Abroad Survey, targeting all undergraduate degree holders from 2008-2012 inclusive.

Dr Sally Daly is a postdoctoral researcher on the Learning from Poland/Irish Abroad Study, an Employment Research Centre project funded by the Irish Research Council and located in the Institute for International Integration Studies at Trinity College Dublin. This blog is adapted from a project newsletter which is available here along with more project information.