Thursday, September 13, 2007

The looming talent crisis in the Philippines

‘Brain drain” is a reality that the Philippines has to deal with squarely. And we should deal with it now.

As we have discussed in our recent five-part series on the issue, brain drain has gone mainstream, affecting all sectors of the economy, especially hospitals, airlines, mining, manufacturing, information technology, the performing arts, journalism, the armed forces, aviation, weather forecasting, hotels, advertising and accounting. It has negatively affected both the public and private sectors.

Name any profession these days, and chances are one could immediately hear complaints about companies finding it too hard to find or retain “the right people” for the simple reason that the best ones are leaving for better-paying jobs abroad. It has become a major headache among private companies and even a greater problem within government bureaucracy.

Gone are the days when employees are expected to stay with the company for the rest of their lives. These days, employees, especially the highly skilled ones, are in constant search for employers that can give them the best working environment, the best pay package, the best experience, and training that could even enhance their skills—companies that could give them the excitement of doing “the next big thing.”

With the rapid flow of information, national borders have become meaningless—more so because Filipinos, having imbibed the culture of both the East and West by virtue of our historical experiences, could easily adapt in any cultural environment.

Make no mistake about it, the trend toward greater global labor mobility is not just related to the personal decisions of individual employees and the greater ease to travel beyond national borders. The corporate world has also contributed to this trend.
In the ’80s, “corporate downsizing” became the trend as companies tried becoming “lean and mean” to cope with global economic slowdown and greater global competition brought about by the emergence of “newly industrializing economies.” Suddenly, the old labor-management ethos of “lifetime employment” and “company loyalty” vanished as hundreds and thousands of workers lost jobs across the globe.

Recent literature on labor migration says the term “brain drain” is old-fashioned given the mounting evidence for brain gain and “brain circulation,” a phenomenon described by AnaLee Saxenian, dean of the University of California Berkeley School of Information, as the tendency for skilled migrants to return to their native lands as entrepreneurs and bridges for investments and technological diffusion while maintaining their links with the US.

This is certainly an emerging trend in Ireland, Israel, China and India, and to a limited extent, the Philippines.

But we continue to call it “brain drain” because the diaspora of skilled professionals from the Philippines is likely to get worse before it could get better. The push and pull factors are strong as ever.

On the one hand, the continuing tales of corruption in high places (the latest of which involves the national broadband deal and cyber education project with the Chinese government), low pay and the continuing perception of lack of appreciation by many company managers of local talents, especially in areas like the medical profession, are among the major push factors.

On the other, demographic transitions (more people getting old) in countries like the US, Europe, Australia and Japan, and growing expenditures for health facilities in Middle Eastern countries, are forcing governments in said countries to open their labor markets to Filipino medical professionals (mostly nurses, doctors and medical technicians).

High crude prices are enriching the Gulf States, translating to a flurry of investments in commercial centers, oil rigs and platforms, thus attracting thousands of construction workers, architects, engineers and managers.

And more important, in this age of the knowledge world, even governments are actively seeking talents across cultures, hoping to maintain their economic edge. The governments of the US, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand and Australia are actively recruiting from all over the world, including the Philippines.

All these trends are beneficial to skilled professionals and technical people. The skilled ones now have more options in life. But soon these trends are going to hurt emerging industries that are dependent on the supply of skilled labor, like outsourcing, finance and mining. Give it three years, says one corporate executive, and skilled workers would really be a real problem, unless the private sector and the government could cook up policies to address the problem.

The Philippines is a democracy. We can never stop people from seeking happiness beyond our borders. The only way the country can effectively address the problem, therefore, is by raising the supply of skilled labor for both the local and global labor markets.

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