Construction workers repairing tram rails
Language barriers, no networks, and unrecognized qualifications are a few of the reasons why migrants often work far below their level of education. © Mika Baumeister/unsplash

EU citizens are free to settle and work in any member state of the Union, and they have a right to equal treatment. Accordingly, applicants from other EU countries may not be obliged to fulfill any requirements that do not apply to nationals. In reality, however, equal treatment is far from being a given. Many migrant workers, from eastern EU countries in particular, work in jobs that are far below their level of qualification.

Researchers refer to this phenomenon as “deskilling”. According to statistics, migrants living in Austria are affected by this many times more often than nationals. Funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF, “Deskilling among 'new' EU migrants (DeMiCo)” is one of the first qualitative sociological research projects to investigate the processes behind this widespread phenomenon. 

Elisabeth Scheibelhofer, Clara Holzinger and Anna-Katharina Draxl from the Department of Sociology at the University of Vienna are focusing on the point of view of the affected migrants. “One of the innovative aspects of this qualitative approach is the fact that it takes special account of the sensitive conversational situation in the interviews with the migrants, and it deals with the language barrier in a new way,” explains Scheibelhofer.

Hungary, Czechia, Romania

The researchers focus on migrant workers from three countries that joined the EU in the course of the 2004-07 “eastern enlargement”: Hungary, Czechia and Romania. Comprehensive interviews with dozens of study participants from these countries are being conducted in three waves, at clearly distinct intervals of time. “While being an unusual and resource-intensive approach, the repeated interviews reveal the process of how deskilling arises,” notes Clara Holzinger.

It is a fundamental problem of this type of interview that the interviewing researchers and the migrants they talk to are part of a society with inherently discriminatory structures. Power gradients between the majority society and migrants also come to bear on such situations. “Some interviewees are afraid, for example, to address experiences of discrimination clearly because they feel it would present them in a bad light,” says Scheibelhofer, illustrating one of the consequences of this discriminatory context. “Instead, they emphasize how grateful they are to the host country – even though that was not really part of the question.”

Sensitive interview technique

Social mechanisms of this kind require sensitive and open communication and a strongly context-oriented interpretation of what is said. The sociologists use a team of expert interpreters and translators who are closely involved in the research process. “We wanted to rethink the role of interpreters and no longer see them merely as a kind of tool to overcome the language barrier, but as an element of social interaction in the interview situation,” says Holzinger. The professional interpreters receive special training in conducting qualitative interviews, and they are involved in reflecting on the interview content and its scientific interpretation.

The interviewees are free to choose the language in which the interview is conducted. Their life stories reveal more than just a wide range of experiences of discrimination. In addition to the consequences of the language barrier, jobseekers are also held back by the slow process of getting recognition for training completed in their country of origin and by the lack of informal networks. “For instance, a natural scientist from the Czech Republic told us that she was unable to pursue her profession for a number of reasons, including a lack of childcare options. So she has now been working as an assistant in a kindergarten for a decade,” recounts Holzinger.

Transitional jobs become permanent

One interview shows how the stricter requirements for German language skills forced a Romanian doctor to return to her country of origin. Another migrant woman who was overqualified for her job was discriminated against by her colleague because the latter was afraid of being replaced. The interviews also show that an Eastern European accent is in itself a trigger for discrimination, even if that person has good German language skills.

“A key mechanism of deskilling is the lack of financial resources, which forces migrants to find work as soon as they arrive,” explains Anna-Katharina Draxl. “They take on low-skilled jobs – for instance in construction or as a cleaner – with the intention to return to a job that corresponds to their qualifications once they have received professional recognition or have acquired sufficient language skills.” In many cases this just does not work out. The migrants remain “stuck” in the lowly job and are also repeatedly placed in comparable jobs by the Public Employment Service (AMS).

Reflecting on discrimination

In addition to the interviews with migrants, the project also includes discussions with representatives of organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce or the AMS in order to be able to make statements on institutional framework conditions. The single most important measure to mitigate the problem of deskilling is obvious, and many parties have repeatedly been calling for a change: the process of recognizing professional qualifications must be speeded up and made less cumbersome. But there is also a need for more reflection on discriminatory structures within the economy and society.

The sociologists are making a contribution to this end in the shape of a citizen-science initiative. In the add-on project “Understanding racism”, which is funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF as part of the Top Citizen Science program, non-researchers are involved in the interpretation of the interviews. “We are interested in how people with different backgrounds perceive the statements that may contain experiences of discrimination,” notes Draxl.

Personal details

Elisabeth Scheibelhofer is a professor at the Department of Sociology at the University of Vienna. Her research focuses on migration, mobility and qualitative methods. In the project “Deskilling among 'new' EU migrants” (DeMiCo), which receives EUR 399,000 in funding from the Austrian Science Fund FWF and is set to run until 2025, she is collaborating with the sociologists Clara Holzinger (postdoc) and Anna-Katharina Draxl (predoc), both of whom are also trained in teaching German as a foreign language.


Holzinger C. & Draxl A.: Ein rassismuskritischer Blick auf sprachbezogene Diskriminierung beim Zugang zu wohlfahrtsstaatlichen Leistungen und am Arbeitsmarkt, in: Momentum Quarterly 2024

Scheibelhofer E., Holzinger C., Draxl A.: Confronting Racialised Power Asymmetries in the Interview Setting: Positioning Strategies of Highly Qualified Migrants, in: Social Inclusion 2023

Scheibelhofer E.: The Interpretive Interview. An Interview Form Centring on Research Participants' Constructions, in: International Journal of Qualitative Methods 2023

More information

Sociologists investigate the phenomena that are responsible for the fact that immigrant workers often work below their level of education. To this end, the researchers work together with migrants and have initiated a citizen-science program on top.