The International Mobility of Highly Skilled Workers in Transnational Corporations: The Macro and Micro Factors of the Organizational Migration of Cadres1


  • 1

    We are grateful for project support provided by the JNICT (the current Foundation for Science and Technology, Ministry of Science and Technology) and the DGOT (Department for Territorial Planning, Ministry of Territorial Planning), which provided a grant for the entire project (PDGT/QRH/392/94). We must also acknowledge the support of ISEG, especially the Department of Social Sciences (Sociology Section) and the Research Center on Economic Sociology and the Sociology of Organizations (SOCIUS). We express our thanks to João Ferrão and J. M. Carvalho Ferreira, whose advice was invaluable to the research process. We also extend our gratitude to Maria Ioannis Baganha, Ilona Kovács, John Salt, Vítor Corado Simões and Rafael Marques, among others, for the help they provided at particular stages during the project. The comments of three anonymous referees on a previous version of this paper should also be acknowledged. Their constructive remarks were essential to the improvement of the present version. Finally, we should mention John B. Cherry and Peter Baldrey, who were respectively responsible for the translation and final editing of the paper. Concerning all, the usual disclaimer applies.


The worldwide movement of highly skilled workers (cadres) in transnational corporations has long been known to literature in the field, yet has not been thoroughly researched. The mechanisms governing their international circulation are, in themselves, somewhat specific. The fact that they use an organizational “channel” for migration means that the constraints differ from those that act on “independent” economic migrants with either low or high levels of skill (the so-called brain drain). This article focuses on some of the manifestations of this mobility. Its dependence on a set of variables can be considerable: the firm's development phase, investment target choice, leading activity (manufacturing or services), form of technology, type of firm (using greenfield or brownfield investment), whether a firm acquired is healthy or undergoing an economic crisis, and nationality or corporate culture. The occupational insertion of cadres leads to further constraints: while the strictly “technical” assignments generally stem from skill shortages, the general “management” appointments mainly result from questions arising from control and trust. As a whole, the flows of highly skilled workers seem to be related to multiple variables – either social, organizational or individual – which make it difficult to predict future trends.