“One improves here every day”: the occupational and learning journeys of “lower-skilled” European migrants in the London region

This paper examines narratives of learning and occupational advancement amongst migrants employed in ‘low-skilled’ jobs, based on in-depth interviews with secondary-educated East and South Europeans living in the London region. Our findings indicate that many achieved varying degrees of professional gratification, progress, and skills development within occupational sectors typically associated with unattractive conditions, limited benefits or opportunities to get ahead. Participants’ narratives of achievement expand the relatively limited literature that challenges common perceptions of occupational mobility and professional development as the terrain of the ‘highly skilled’. Furthermore, we examine how migrants made sense of their career opportunities and success. We discuss two discourses, centred on ‘hard work’ and ‘creativity’ respectively, through which participants challenged and reconfigured traditional ‘high’-‘low-skilled’ divides. Our findings contribute to critiques of traditional understandings of migrant human capital and simplistic ‘high’-‘low-skilled’ distinctions in two ways: by documenting the less visible experiences of learning and career progress amongst secondary-educated European youth who enter ‘low-skilled’ employment abroad, and by calling attention to subjective understandings of occupational mobility and the new ‘symbolic boundaries’ around skills, broadly construed, that migrants redrew in their reflections on career progress.