Most human capital and migration studies classify migrants with limited formal education as “unskilled,” despite substantial skills developed through job and life experiences. Drawing on a binational multi-stage research project that involved interviews with 320 Mexican migrants and return migrants in North Carolina and Guanajuato, Mexico, we identify the lifelong human capital they acquired and transferred throughout their careers and discover that these include not only basic education and English, but also technical and social skills and competences acquired informally on and off the job throughout the course of one’s life. We further find that the learning and transfer of skills is a lifelong, gendered process, reflecting the different social contexts and jobs in which men and women learn. In this paper we document several mobility pathways associated with the acquisition and transfer of skills across the migratory circuit, including reskilling, occupational mobility, job jumping, and entrepreneurship.
Our study has broad implications for the migration policies of both the US and Mexico. US immigration policy confers preference to “skilled” immigrants who rank high on traditional human capital characteristics, such as education levels and other formal credentials, but limits the entry of “unskilled” migrants, a categorization that ignores the substantial informal skills they bring to US labor markets. Instead of focusing only on the continued expansion of immigration policy preferences for narrowly defined skilled migrants, the US government needs to consider more carefully what we mean by skilled workers and design fairer and more effective immigration policies that match their abilities to the specific needs of US industry and thereby recognize the economic contributions of all migrants within a lifelong human capital framework. Mexico can also learn from our findings. Between 2005 and 2010 an estimated 1.4 million Mexicans returned to Mexico from the US, a figure roughly double the number who had returned in the five-year period a decade earlier (Passel et al. 2012). The government of Mexico has a history of developing programs to provide for Mexicans abroad and encourage their remittances. Our research indicates that the Mexican people and their economy would benefit by supporting entrepreneurial ventures and reintegration programs that recognize and reward the enhanced skill sets of return migrants. As we show, some of these individuals are able to fill valued positions and start businesses of their own, creating more jobs in their home communities and thus promoting local economic development.