Sunday, July 02, 2006

Escape from the Philippines

OUR policymakers are probably thinking that the current diaspora of nurses is all about nurses and doctors leaving the country in droves, which is bad enough. Recent information gathered by the Research Staff indicates that there are now certified accountants, lawyers, cops and former cops, engineers, remote sensing experts, computer programmers, mathematicians, statisticians, teachers, biologists, soldiers, journalists, and bankers who are taking up nursing.

In short, it’s practically the entire professional class—the knowledge workers—who are taking nursing and we could assume it’s just another way for them to escape the Philippines. And there are a thousand and one ways of doing so: as mercenaries, computer technicians, welders, domestic helpers, entertainers, construction workers, graduate students, and what-have-you.

One day, our business and political leaders will awake to find the best brains around are no longer there—gone to all those nooks and crannies of the world where their talents are more appreciated and their future secure. Yes, even if part of the price they pay for this is to give up their original professions to take up the skills more marketable in the world, nursing. That scenario is not just a nightmare of perception—it would be bad for a Philippine economy that has been muddling through, because the skilled workers who have a better chance at getting it out of this rut will no longer be there.

Certainly, economic factors are one of the main driving forces for this trend of professionals leaving both country and careers just to be nurses. After all, this is the brave new world of globalization where borders are crumbling and dreams for betterment are no longer constrained by friction of distance. But knowing the character of the Pinoy—the love for the family, romantic attachments to friends and sweethearts, the penchant to hang around with barkadas—the professional Pinoys wouldn’t leave if only he or she still sees good prospects for economic and social mobility in this country. Apparently, with the constant bloodletting—literally in the streets as killings go on with impunity, and symbolically, ub the political arena, the professional Pinoys don’t see anything promising or worth staying for.

In short, the diaspora of the professionals is an indictment of the entire country as a system. The System can no longer respond to their dreams and to their aspirations for a better life for their offspring. The ideals of serving the Motherland have been totally replaced by a desire for sheer survival. And who can blame them? When prospects are dire, one could only think about the family; and the prospects of seeing one’s child suffer the same sense of hopelessness is enough to drive every Filipino to foreign shores.

In fairness, the Philippine economy has been growing pretty well in the last 1- quarters. The 5-6 percent is quite decent, but economists like Dr Joseph T. Yap of the Philippine Institute of Development Studies (PIDS) say that that level of economic performance is not enough to improve the Filipinos’ standard of living. That growth rate, Yap says, indicates we are not in dire straits, yet it’s also not enough to lift us out of poverty. Nakakaraos lang nang konti. And that is not the kind of environment that would nurture the talents of those among us who have great dreams for themselves and their families. If we have to restore confidence in the future, the country, according to Yap, needs to grow at 7-8 percent in the next five years to really make a difference. Given the current political environment, that’s a tall order and it’s fair to expect the diaspora of the country’s professionals will only get worse before it could get better.

But there are actually a lot of things that the government and the private sector could do to lessen the number of professionals escaping to foreign shores. For instance, there’s really a great need for the private sector and the government to review the way we determine wages. For so long, politicians and bureaucrats have thought of the minimum wage workers whenever they adjust workers’ pay in response to economic shocks like the sudden rise in oil prices. Since the pay scales of skilled professionals are always a little bit higher than the minimum wage rates, they are usually excluded from the wage adjustments despite their strategic and greater contributions to their companies and organizations. Thus, over the years, the pay levels of skilled professionals have been deteriorating in real terms, forcing them to seek employment opportunities abroad.

At the surface, business leaders don’t notice this disillusionment among their knowledge workers because, as usual, they report to office in their Sunday best. But increasingly, many of them are leading secret lives: knowledge workers by day and nursing students by night. And on free time and weekends, they trawl the internet job sites for the latest job offers abroad, scan job advertisements in newspapers, hoping they could find that all-important break. And someday, because they are skilled people, many of them might just succeed.

Sad but true. It’s time policy and decision makers both in the government and the private sectors come to terms with this problem before it’s too late.

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