Negotiating Employability: Zimbabwean High Skilled Migrants and their Capitals

By Roda Madziva, Juliet Thondhlana, Simon McGrath

Migration, settlement and employment in a new country have always been linked strongly to kinship and friendship networks. However, the exact mechanisms operating and their relative importance continue to be a matter of academic debate. Our recently published paper in the Sociological Review: ‘Negotiating employability: migrant capitals and networking strategies for Zimbabwean highly skilled migrants in the UK’ offers new insights into the complex interaction between social networks and other factors such as immigration status, gender dynamics, labour market practices, skills (mis)match and individuals’ adjustment capabilities.

Much of the attention given to Zimbabweans in Britain has focused on the large numbers who have found employment in the care home sector. However, as we have argued elsewhere, ‘Zimbabwean graduate migrants are more than just “British bottom cleaners”’. The 20 Zimbabwean graduates we interviewed were from a wide variety of academic and professional backgrounds. In post-colonial Zimbabwe, they were members of the professional and elite class who had enjoyed prestigious lifestyles before the country’s economic and political downturn. While they felt compelled to leave Zimbabwe by the worsening economic situation, prestigious visa routes such as the UK Highly Skilled Migrant Programme offered some the hope of sustaining their acquired status and lifestyle.

Even for those who used other migration routes such as student and family reunion visas, coming from a former British colony with a British-styled education and many years of appropriate work experience, led them to believe that it would be relatively easy to transfer their skills to the UK context. In interviews, participants were explicit that their migration goals were those of securing jobs within their existing areas of specialisation as opposed to taking any job available in the UK. While they all depended on social connections in their migration and job seeking processes, their networking structures reflect two categories of professional and non-professional ties.

Professional networks: Privileges and opportunities

For one group, professional transitions were eased by membership of professional bodies such as UK Institute for Engineers and the UK Health Professions Council, and by networks of professional colleagues. This was the experience of eight participants, who were from STEM disciplines, and had skills that were in demand internationally. Indeed, it was on skills scarcity arguments that their visas were granted. Jabulani’s example, below, suggests that those who were able to use professional networks could find getting professional jobs relatively easy:

a friend of mine (an Engineer) who was already working abroad said, ‘you can get information about engineering jobs online . . . ’ I went on the computer and just googled and boom, it came out and it says: ‘you can apply to this highly skilled, migrant programme’. I applied, without even going through a lot of detail, lo and behold a letter came saying: ‘yes, come’.

Others used membership of professional bodies as vehicles through which they were able to easily buy into the UK labour market within their areas of specialisation:

There was such a high demand at that time in the European rail industry for that specific engineering skill. As a member of the UK Institute of Engineers I could easily get a job. I actually came sponsored by the company. They process your work permit and pay for all your relocation… It just felt like a continuation, because . . . all the training and everything we did in Zimbabwe and the systems we used were all British … So it was almost like waking up, the next day you are at work here in the UK.

For this group, migration to the UK was experienced as part of career progression, facilitated by a combination of factors, including transnational networks, visa routes, internationally-recognised qualifications and membership of professional bodies.

Non-professional networks: the challenge of escaping the ‘warehouse mentality’

Our second group did not have it quite so easy. These 12 participants had social studies degrees in areas such as teaching, law and accounting, where professional bodies were weaker and UK demand less. As a result, they had used diverse migration pathways, including student visas, family reunion and asylum. They came without any job promises and on arrival, they predominantly depended on exclusively Zimbabwean pre-existing networks, including family, relatives, friends and church.

These non-professional networks were shaped by what participants referred to as ‘the warehouse mentality’ to describe a particular culture within the Zimbabwean diaspora social connections. This ‘mentality’ downplays graduates’ career expectations and aspirations, channelling individuals into non-skilled and semi-skilled jobs, and privileging earning money over occupational status.

This is experienced in highly-gendered ways. Several female interviewees spoke of how their husbands, who found themselves stuck in doing non-skilled jobs as lead migrants, used this as the standard to define how far their wives could go when they later came to join them. However, not all women we interviewed were prepared to remain passive in this process.

Pafunge, a former forestry officer, with a BSc in Geography and Environmental Studies arrived in 2005 to join her husband after three years of separation due to visa complications. On arrival, she struggled to find employment in her own field as neither her qualifications nor her experience appeared to have value to English employers:

I realised that people who have got qualifications from here stand a better chance . . . also because I didn’t have any experience of working within the UK setting, I didn’t really stand a better chance…

Pafunge’s network then encouraged her to do care work. However, she quickly moved away from this for reasons of status. With the help of her husband, she then drifted into the call centre industry. He tried to make her believe that this was a good job, but it did not satisfy her sense of who she was:

I remember my husband saying, ‘oh people from Zimbabwe here think that you’re working in a call centre, oh you’ve got a good job’. Here I am thinking it’s not a very good job. What skill am I getting by just talking to someone over the phone ? . . . if I’m to go back to Zimbabwe today can I just go and blab and say, ‘oh I worked in a call centre’? They’ll look at you and think, ‘okay, so what?’

As we have noted elsewhere in the context of communicating employability, Zimbabwean graduates have to quickly learn how to do things in ways that are culturally and financially appropriate in the UK context. Many of this second group realise that they have to invest further in their human capital in order to be competitive enough. However, financial realities mean that many come to the conclusion that nursing and social work are the professions that offer the best return on investment, particularly because of the availability of government funding for studying, and subsequent employment prospects.

Pafunge realised that a Master’s degree was going to be important if she was going to escape the call centre and regain her professional status. Taking advice from others in the diaspora, she decided that social work was the easiest route:

People I have been in touch with or talk to, they’ve either done nursing or they’ve gone into social work… you don’t self-fund. So initially I thought okay . . . just to get out of this call centre thing, I will follow suit

However, an initial failure to secure a place led her to reconsider what she really wanted. Instead of following the apparently easiest route, which did not sit well with her sense of identity, she decided, rather, to look for professional courses that had labour market potential but built on her initial professional knowledge and socialisation. This led her to environmental health:

As I was looking . . . the description of the degree: ‘environmental health’ was something interesting’ . . . I thought I would be better suited to get a job here. Also things are getting tough within the UK . . . if we decide okay we’re going back to Zimbabwe, I need to go back with education that is higher than what I had and also hoping people will still be recognising international degrees.

What can we learn from this study?

Three things. First, there are significant differences in experiences between graduate migrants who are able to utilise professional networks and those that cannot. For the latter, there was a danger of being sucked into ‘the warehouse mentality’ and losing professional status and identity.

Second, the combination of immigration regulations and gender relations can serve to reinforce the power of ‘the warehouse mentality’. By problematising this and showing how migrants are not only differentiated by structure but also in their agentic responses our research talks back to literature that tends to homogenise migrants in either celebrating their agency or bemoaning the injurious effects on them of structure.

Third, migrants’ failure to find a ‘skill fit’ did not necessarily result in them rejecting their institutionalised cultural capital as worthless. Rather, they reinvented their capital stock in an effort to make their dreams come true. In so doing, they drew on their habitus to create new forms of ‘migrant specific capital’ and through this a new habitus associated with the Zimbabwean diaspora in the UK.

Roda Madziva is a Research Fellow in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham. Her research focuses on understanding the association between immigration policies and migrants’ lived experiences. To this end, her work is driven by an attempt to understand the role that the UK immigration regime and related policies play in the integration of migrants into the host community, exploring access and barriers to the labour market and family reunification for asylum seekers/refugees and highly skilled migrants. Roda has worked closely with migrant support organisations, communities and churches at both local and national level. Email:

Juliet Thondhlana is a Lecturer in Education in the School of Education, University of Nottingham. Her research interests are in the interaction of migration, higher education and employability and the related field of the internationalisation of higher education. She has conducted research on Zimbabwean highly skilled migrants to the UK and those who acquire UK degrees. Currently she is researching the integration and resettlement of Syrian refugees in the UK exploring key themes of quality education, employability and skills fit; the internationalisation of higher education looking at the practices of three Russell Group universities in the UK; and exploring the research culture of African Universities. Email:

Simon McGrath, University of Nottingham, United Kingdom and University of the Western Cape, South Africa. Simon McGrath is Professor of International Education and Development and Convenor of the Nottingham Sustainable Development Research Priority Area. He has published on a number of aspects of education – development links, especially at the post-school level. He is researching theories of vocational education and training for development; policies on the internationalisation of higher education in small states; and the development of new approaches to institutional development and evaluation in vocational education and training. He has engaged in policy advice and evaluation research for a range of national and international organisations and is currently most active in work for DFID, UNESCO and the Commonwealth Secretariat. Simon. Email:

Originally posted 7th February 2017.

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