Why the European Labor Market Integration of Displaced Ukrainians Is Defying Expectations
Europe has opened its doors to millions of displaced Ukrainians at a time when many of its countries are experiencing major labor shortages. While the new arrivals are finding work more rapidly than previous refugee cohorts, uncertainty over how long they will stay, combined with hurdles such as language and qualification recognition barriers and child-care responsibilities, has meant many are prioritizing any job over the right job.
Although for many Ukrainians this might represent a rational short-term strategy, it nonetheless entails a waste of skills (and ultimately, earnings) that could otherwise be used to address pressing labor needs. Helping Ukrainians access quality employment and unlock their potential to fill labor shortages will require innovative solutions that draw on past immigrant and refugee integration experiences helping people build skills alongside work.
How Are Those Displaced from Ukraine Faring in the Labor Market?
Unlike other recent displacement crises, Europe moved swiftly to invoke its previously unused Temporary Protection Directive (TPD), giving new arrivals from Ukraine fast-track access to legal status and as a result, employment, social services, and benefits. (At this writing, more than 4 million people displaced from Ukraine had registered for temporary protection, although some may have since returned to Ukraine.)
Seven months on, there are signs that the displaced are managing to enter the labor market. In Poland, about 30 percent of working-age newcomers had found a job three months from the beginning of the war, while in the Czech Republic, about 40 percent were working six months on. However, some are not actively seeking work, notably those who are overwhelmed with child-care responsibilities or trauma, and those who can rely on savings to get through what they hope will be a short period of displacement. But this picture is only partial, as many countries have yet to publish their data. In turn, interviews conducted by the authors that will appear in a forthcoming Migration Policy Institute Europe publication suggest that some newcomers may have found work in the informal sector (including providing child-care and elder-care services within the Ukrainian community) or on a more casual basis (including informal self-employment or remote work), which would not be captured in this data collection.
Overcoming Hurdles to Match Ukrainian Skills and Labor Needs
At first glance, the newcomers offer significant potential for addressing some of Europe’s labor shortages. Pre-war surveys in Ukraine revealed a highly educated population, with experience in high-priority sectors for Europe such as tech, hospitality, health care, social services, and education. Many Ukrainian households also had pre-war experience of labor migration within the European Union, although current restrictions on working-age men leaving Ukraine mean that there may be limited overlap with these earlier waves. In countries such as Poland, pre-war flows were predominantly men working in sectors such as construction, agriculture, and transport. However, women working in social care services prevailed in the large Ukrainian diasporas of Italy and Germany.
Despite these favorable circumstances, matching displaced Ukrainians with European job openings is not straightforward. The populations leaving the country are predominantly women, children, and those over the age of 60. As a result, on average, just 50 percent to 60 percent of all TPD beneficiaries are working age, although this varies across countries. Countries bordering Ukraine host very high shares of children (who make up half of Ukrainian arrivals in Poland and Moldova compared to about one-third in Spain and the United Kingdom, for example). Among the working population, high shares of women are single parenting while their husbands fight in Ukraine. Access to affordable child care is thus key for helping these newcomers enter the labor market, alongside addressing other barriers that can impact refugee labor market participation, such as limited destination-country language proficiency and trauma.
Looking ahead, both the integration trajectory and the ability of governments to track outcomes will be complicated by secondary movements of this population (allowed under TPD status) and circular movements to and from Ukraine.
Early Lessons for Policymakers
The relatively rapid entry into the labor market of displaced Ukrainians (at least compared to earlier refugee cohorts) shows that refugee women can find work quickly—under the right conditions. In part, this progress can be attributed to the relatively high educational attainment of new arrivals and in some cases, their existing professional and social networks in Europe, as well as tight labor markets. But it also speaks to their clear legal status and the engagement of civil society and employers in welcoming this population.
While the handling of the Ukraine crisis stands apart from Europe’s response to other displacement crises, there are nonetheless important lessons that policymakers can take forward to benefit displaced populations from Ukraine and elsewhere.
Provide Labor Market Access as Quickly as Possible
The last seven months have revealed considerable employer enthusiasm to hire displaced Ukrainians as an act of solidarity and a means to address pressing labor needs. In Poland and the Baltic countries, some employers went so far as to create jobs with the main purpose of supporting Ukrainians. The scale of this solidarity contrasts with the reception of earlier cohorts of refugees, and points to the discrimination that arrivals, especially from Muslim-majority or African countries, may face in European labor markets that can hamper their successful labor market integration. It also underscores the importance of harnessing enthusiasm among employers (and indeed, civil society) and making it easy for employers to hire new arrivals.
Activating the TPD meant that Ukrainians could immediately secure the right to work and avoid asylum application processes that can leave applicants waiting months or even years for employment authorization (and in so doing, delay their labor market integration). On paper, EU rules specify that asylum seekers should receive work authorization within nine months of lodging their application; in practice, debates about when this clock starts can mean that asylum seekers wait far longer, with this uncertainty potentially deterring employers from hiring this population. As with the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw some governments introduce temporary work authorizations in response to labor shortages, there is a case for speeding up processing times, reducing waiting periods, and clarifying the process for asylum seekers and prospective employers alike.
Address the Root Causes Driving the Tradeoff between Early and Quality Employment
Uncertainty about their duration of stay can mean Ukrainian arrivals prioritize early employment over quality employment. Surveys suggest that many hope, conditions permitting, to return to Ukraine in the next few months, either on a long-term or more circular basis. It is uncertain whether these intentions will remain if the war drags on and new arrivals put down roots. What is evident for the moment is that the newcomers are not picky about which jobs they take, with many accepting jobs below their skill levels, in the face of language and qualification recognition barriers. Where such barriers are lower, as in the information, communications, and technology (ICT) and hospitality sectors, better jobs-skills matching is observed. Evidence also points to the high incidence of part-time and temporary contracts—but this could partly reflect individual preferences (for instance, women juggling work and child care) and the expectation that the stay may be short term. One immediate consequence is that despite their qualifications, displaced Ukrainians may not be a good fit for pressing shortages in some middle- and high-skilled occupations, at least in the short-to-medium term.
In supporting the integration of displaced Ukrainians, policymakers should look for inspiration both from the experiences of welcoming recent refugee arrivals and the parallels with mobility under the 2004 and 2007 EU enlargements that also saw large numbers of people moving for work and prioritizing early employment and quick earnings ability.
Policymakers may need to revisit how they benchmark and support quality employment for Ukrainians. It would be a folly to persuade newcomers to invest in lengthy and resource-intensive training or qualification recognition procedures if they do not intend to settle. Instead, policymakers should explore how to accommodate the desire to find paid work quickly while still supporting new arrivals’ access to quality employment and minimizing skills waste and exploitation. Promising examples include initiatives by Estonia and Latvia to help Ukrainian medical professionals and teachers work temporarily, respectively, as medical and teaching assistants (tapping their Russian skills). Such approaches can expand capacity in frontline sectors while helping newcomers use their skills. Eventually, in the case of prolonged stays, such solutions could help bridge gaps on the path towards full professional qualifications recognition and licensing.
Leverage the Diaspora
Finally, the early response to displacement from Ukraine has underscored the role that diasporas can play in welcoming and supporting new arrivals. Thus far, attention has focused on the remarkable contributions of civil society more broadly to help connect arrivals with housing, networks, and services. But it is also worth reflecting on the role that the Ukrainian diaspora specifically has played in some countries to connect newcomers with professional and social networks, and bridge gaps in local services, especially in contexts where reception and integration systems are under considerable strain. For example, some French public schools have employed qualified Ukrainian residents as teaching assistants on a short-term basis to support the inclusion of newly arrived Ukrainian children in mainstream education. Looking ahead, policymakers should explore ways to build on and support solidarity from civil society and diaspora members throughout the reception and integration process, including labor market integration.
Risks and Opportunities Ahead
Early signs for the labor market integration of those displaced from Ukraine are promising, even as policymakers focus on pressures on reception services, housing, and education. Yet looming economic recession and a worsening labor market outlook could change this picture. Experiences globally from the Great Recession and the pandemic suggest that the low-quality jobs where newcomers tend to concentrate are especially vulnerable to cuts, while sustained economic pressures could weaken the solidarity that has underpinned support for displaced Ukrainians to date. In turn, a prolonged conflict could lead to additional arrivals from Ukraine, including previously conscripted men reuniting with family, who may need intensive supports such as trauma counseling, at a time of growing pressures on public spending.
While the challenges ahead are manifold, policymakers can build on early successes, such as the support of diaspora members and strong engagement of employers and civil society, to create a resilient, flexible, and multifaceted labor integration strategy for Ukrainians and other newcomers for the decade to come.