Thu, 13 Apr 2000

Massive brain drain is looming

By Santo Koesoebjono

WASSENAAR, the Netherlands (JP): The imbalance between demand for and the limited supply of qualified people compels governments and corporations in industrialized countries to import ready-made skills.

The Netherlands recently announced its intention to recruit various specialized nurses from outside the European Union, such as from South Africa and the Philippines.

The Dutch government prefers to hire nurses who have worked in another cultural setting, for instance in Middle Eastern countries. Indonesia has sent nurses to the Netherlands for several years and will continue to do so.

Other western European countries have also voiced their need for such expertise.

Skilled workers in developing countries become an excellent target for recruiters. The workers are receptive to the lure of favorable financial, working and living conditions abroad since their salaries at home are low, and their working and living conditions and their job satisfaction leave much to be desired.

The drain in skilled personnel is not a recent phenomenon; the brain drain has been the most obvious and cheap method to get workers from outside to meet the in-country demand.

It is cheap because the institutes need not provide basic training and specialization. Moreover, the workers often have broad experience in their field of expertise.

A recent United Nations study indicates the 15-member countries of the European Union will need some 40 million immigrants (almost equal to the population of West Java) by the year 2025 to avoid the shrinking of their workforce.

This number equals about 10 percent of its present population. Not all types of migrants are welcome, however, since these countries need more brains than brawn.

This high demand forces them to shop across borders. Developing countries, including Indonesia, are the right sources of qualified workers, ranging from specialists in science, technology and medicine to those in "caring" professions such as nurses. The risk of massive outflow of expertise from developing countries is looming.

For more than three decades highly industrialized countries have been experiencing the effect of low birth rates, with the result that the population of their younger generation is smaller.

The youth in developed countries enter the labor market at a later age due to the extension of their education. Concurrently, the countries are facing an aging of the population and of the labor force.

Western European countries are caught between diminishing size of younger generations and the workforce on one hand, and the rapidly increasing number of senior citizens on the other.

Declining population and a rise in the elderly population will have a great impact on the productivity and economic competitiveness of a country. To strengthen the economic position investments in education and human resources are essential. Qualified manpower is an important asset for the competitiveness of a country, both in developed and developing worlds.

The shortage of qualified people is intensified by the rapid transformation from manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy. Modern industries and services increasingly need expertise to add value to their products.

Progress and application of information technology in almost every sector of economic activities require expertise.

The scarcity arises because the education system did not keep up with the new development, and companies and organizations failed to enhance the knowledge of their workers with the new technology.

The situation is tangible in industrialized countries and is emerging in developing countries.

As a consequence of the move, developing countries in need of qualified people are at risk of losing their valuable young nationals. In the emerging global economy characterized by free competition and trade, and internationalization of companies and human resources, it is not the quantity but the quality of the population that matters.

The departure of many qualified workers means a loss of manpower in which the government has invested. The recruitment of skilled workers in developing countries by developed countries is analogous to providing development aid from developing nations to developed countries.

It is, of course, contrary to the notion of developed countries providing aid to developing nations. Outflows of expertise will further retard the development process of developing countries.

Measures are needed should outflows from developing countries persist. In democratic states, people basically can move freely across frontiers. Limiting the departure of people is therefore a complicated matter.

There are plenty of ways to leave the country through legal or illegal routes, using either proper intermediaries or traffickers.

A plausible measure is the introduction of special remuneration and privileges for certain expertise.

This will put, however, a major constraint on the budget of most developing countries. For this purpose, funding can be allocated from development aid funds to strengthen local human resources to keep skilled manpower from leaving the country.

An agreement between countries or with companies should guarantee a return of the workers or a rotation system: a colleague will replace a returned expert.

Moreover, the workers and experts working abroad should also be given the opportunity for further study or advance training to improve their competence and expertise. A more stringent regulation is that certain categories of qualified people leaving the country should give a guarantee for a return, a sort of a contract.

Should they choose to stay abroad and break the contract, they must pay back the costs of the training and the extra salaries the institute has paid to hire someone as a replacement.

Organizations should give a deposit when their employee is going abroad. Government officials should provide a permit to leave the country and should pass legislation regulating labor migration.

These are harsh measures and the success of the implementation strongly depends on the integrity of responsible officials. On the other hand, lack of regulations will lead to losing scarce expertise and investment, which are highly needed by developing countries.

The interests of governments and corporations in need of workers do not coincide with those of the countries where they are sourced. There is an unequal exchange between developed and developing countries, a loss of expertise and investment in exchange of remittances.

The countries risk losing their energetic young manpower. Indonesia is not immune to this risk. Besides, a continuous brain drain will reduce the motivation and commitment to work among those who remain in the country. An agreement between sending and receiving countries is hence essential to create a win-win situation for the countries concerned. Otherwise, the brain drain will impede the development of developing countries.

The writer is an economist-demographer based in the Netherlands.