Nearshore Americas
jamaica caribbean brain drain

Five Reasons Why Brain Drain in the Caribbean Isn’t Entirely Bad

Brain drain. It is a phrase we, in the Caribbean region, are familiar with because every so often a big hullabaloo is made about the rate at which skilled persons are leaving the region to take advantage of better opportunities elsewhere. 

The impetus for the most recent uproar was the release of the 2022 human flight and brain drain index by, in which Jamaica was ranked second among the 177 countries surveyed. In addition to Jamaica, Haiti and Guyana were ranked at 9th and 10th respectively.

The latest index has been receiving considerable visibility and is being widely discussed in many quarters. Policymakers have cited the findings and have been lamenting the impact of the brain drain and the need for Caribbean countries to aggressively address this issue. Areas such as education and nursing have been feeling the heat for several years, as thousands of teachers and nurses have been emigrating to the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, which have been aggressively recruiting such expertise throughout the region to meet the demand in their respective home countries.

The brain drain is also being acutely felt in the tech space, as organizations are finding it difficult to find and keep skilled personnel. However, as challenging as it is to secure good talent at the organizational level, it could be argued that the brain drain offers some benefits to a country.  

To that end, let me outline five reasons why Caribbean countries should not be embarrassed by the rate at which skilled persons are leaving their shores.

Searching for a Better Life Is Nothing New

Human flight in Caribbean countries is not new. Starting in the 1950s and 1960s, skilled and semi-skilled talent left British colonies to try to create a better life in the United Kingdom and, to a lesser degree, in the United States and Canada. We can go further back to the building of the Panama Canal in the early 1900s, when skilled workers from across the Caribbean relocated to take advantage of the available opportunities.

We must also acknowledge the internal migration that continues to occur in Caribbean countries, from rural to urban areas, that strains the infrastructure and resources in the main towns and cities. 

Human flight in Caribbean countries is not new

To a considerable degree, this internal migration is driven by education. Students from the countryside graduate with skills and qualifications from which there are few or no jobs in the areas of expertise in their hometowns. Thus, they need to relocate to major towns and cities to access work opportunities and eventually become established and permanent residents there.

Graduates are Overqualified

In striving to give our students a first-world education, we have ended up in a situation where, depending on the field, our countries have skilled persons who are overqualified for the local job market. For example, if a handful of people from a particular Caribbean country studied advanced robotics, neural networks or artificial intelligence research, that country may have only a few openings each year (if at all), which is insufficient to absorb all of those who may want jobs in these fields.

At the heart of this challenge is the uneasy tension that exists between the following: an individual being able to fulfill their purpose through their choice of profession; the opportunity to train and develop the requisite expertise either at home or abroad; and whether they will be able to find work at home that utilizes their expertise and allows them to make a decent living.

Talent Supply Exceeds Demand

Coupled with the previous point is the fact that, although a country may need certain skills, the potential supply may exceed the demand and once again result in people being unemployed or under-employed. 

In the tech space, we have people graduating with degrees in software engineering, electronic engineering or with advanced programming skills, but there are only a few vacancies in those areas relative to the size of the labor pool. There are considerably more vacancies for computer technicians or to work in the Management Information Systems (MIS) Department to main office computers and networks.

In striving to give our students a first-world education, we have ended up in a situation where our countries have skilled persons who are overqualified for the local job market

Although working as tech support in a MIS Department is a job, little or none of the skills an individual developed are being used in the position. Moreover, the compensation is likely to be modest, commensurate with the corporate view of such roles, which can affect a person’s sense of professional fulfillment and self-worth.

 A Fast-Flowing Pipeline

Every year, high schools, colleges and universities churn out thousands of graduates who enter the labor pool without enough jobs available to satisfy the annual demand. If a country has 200 computer science graduates every year, for all of those graduates to be gainfully employed, either new openings for such skills need to be occurring or vacancies need to be created. Otherwise, people will leave. 

In many instances, the latter –attrition in the industry– is the primary means by which talent is being absorbed from the labor pool. In other words, when people emigrate for work or to find better opportunities, it reduces some of the pressure on the country to create or find suitable jobs for all of its workers.

The Caribbean region has become an exporter of skilled labor

Creating a job is not easy. In order for certain types of jobs to exist over the long term, they have to be supported by an ecosystem and/or a growing industry for the business to remain viable. Creating new industries or growing new ones does not happen overnight, which means that skilled talent for such industries would need to wait for several years until the industry is sufficiently established to require their skills. 

It is thus good that individuals are being proactive to find available opportunities from which they can benefit right away.

The Caribbean Exports Talent

As much as we would like to avoid admitting to the fact, the Caribbean region has become an exporter of skilled labor. Our students and professionals are well-educated and hold their own among the best in the world, evidenced by the aggressive recruitment that has been happening in the region to fill positions in developed countries.

Although this phenomenon has been occurring for decades, it could be argued that Caribbean countries and the region as a whole have not sought to fully leverage it. Without a doubt, there are opportunities to be had by formalizing existing arrangements and practices with countries with a high demand for skilled labor, in order to have our countries benefit from the investment we have made in educating and building the capacity of our people and even from the resulting loss when they emigrate to those countries for the opportunities being offered there.

Sign up for our Nearshore Americas newsletter:

The above are just a few of the benefits of brain drain to the Caribbean region. Yes, we are losing talent that could build our countries, but we cannot properly and consistently absorb the volume of talent we are producing.

We also have a lot of work to do in developing cogent frameworks and plans to help guide the development of our countries, and create a broader range of options and opportunities to encourage more people to stay.

Michele Marius

Michele Marius is the Editor and Publisher of ICT Pulse, which discusses ICT issues from a Caribbean perspective,
She is an experienced consultant, manager, regulator, engineer and author with a wealth of experience in the telecoms and ICT space. Her experience has been gained within the public and private sectors in developed and developing countries in the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

Add comment