The brain drain tragedy
The depressing brain drain phenomena in Jamaica rears its ugly head as an annual platform for debate, usually accompanied by chest beating and lamenting, as to the reason why so many Jamaicans choose to leave their beloved homeland for pastures new.
The free movement of skills and labour across borders is not a new phenomenon, but if not managed, can limit a nation’s capacity to innovate, grow and operate as a truly international partner on the global stage. This threat is looming over us, simply because we are not proactively stemming the migration of our highly qualified professionals and in turn, our future pipeline of business leaders.
According to a study by the research site GlobalEconomy.com, Jamaicans leave the country to look for (better) opportunities overseas to such an extent that we are ranked second among 177 countries listed on the Human Flight and Brain Drain Index. We are in the company of countries such as Samoa (1), Palestine (3), Somalia (5), El Salvador (7) and Haiti (9) — countries characterised by the ravages of war, extreme economic hardship or a humanitarian crisis such as genocide.
Yes, Jamaica does indeed have its problems but do our problems really rank alongside the issues facing these countries? On the contrary, Jamaica is being hailed as one of the most dynamic and equitable economies in the Caribbean with our economy expanding by approximately four per cent in 2022, and we are successfully securing foreign investment into industries such as the business processing outsourcing (BPO), digital services & agribusiness. These are not typical characteristics of a country experiencing a deep-seated brain drain problem.
So why are we still experiencing a persistent brain drain challenge, that has led to Jamaica being awarded a silver medal on the Flight and Brain Drain Index? What is our problem? Of course, a question too big to address in this article, yet I think we can all agree that the root cause is multi-faceted, societal and cultural, buried deep in our education system, our work-life culture and the disparity between those that have (access) and those that do not.
For example, the neglect of the academia institutions over many years has taken it toll, not only to the detriment of the teaching profession but also for the citizens it is there to serve. To what extent does meaningful collaboration exists between business and academia in shaping the national curriculum, to ensure that our young adults are skilled and prepared for life of work beyond theoretical studies? We must also question the attractiveness of working in a Jamaican enterprise, where, in most cases, the rules of the game to progress a career appear only to be for the chosen few. Jamaicans are ambitious, passionate but impatient for reward and success, yet how many of today’s leaders — in the war for talent — really invest in the talents they do have and provide them the environment to develop and thrive within, or are there still too many leaders adopting traditional and long-established thinking and behaviours that are quickly reaching its sell-by date and is no longer appealing to the free-thinking and digital savvy Jamaican professional? Yes, I am scratching the surface, but I think you see my point.
The war on crime, however, has captured the attention of the media, given the strong commitment to tackle this major problem as proclaimed by the Government and various bodies, including the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ). It makes sense, given that the crime rate has reached a crisis point which is not only affecting the lives of Jamaicans but is also not a strong brand proposition for our tourism industry.
Yet, I would argue the brain drain constitutes as a national crisis and yet curiously, I do not see the same level of intensity or investment of time and energy into solving the brain drain challenge at a national level. There appears to be no national debate or long-term agenda that focuses on closing the national skill gap and thus mitigating the brain drain to some extent.
To resign ourselves to the fact that we do have a major brain drain problem and at the same time embrace the foreign investment that will bring professional opportunities for local talent, is a dichotomy we can no longer turn a blind eye to. If we cannot source these opportunities locally, then by default they will be sourced with professionals from overseas. The future of Jamaica as a credible player in the international market will be at risk. Some would argue, the risk is already there…We should not wear our silver medal as a badge of honour. It is simply a badge of shame.
It is therefore with some urgency that a real conversation, and not sound bites, starts to happen at a national level amongst stakeholders, who have an invested interest and a responsibility to address the burning platform of the brain drain phenomena in Jamaica. For me, right off the bat, the Government, PSOJ and decision makers from the academia world would be key players around the table. For a start, is there not a mutual invested interest for the business community and academia to shape the national curriculum to prepare young adults for work and to create a stronger infrastructure that embraces and supports the entrepreneurial spirit of Jamaican SMEs?
If our Government officials elect to award themselves substantial salary increases based on the argument of “retention and attracting talent,” then surely the same guiding principles should to be applied to lock-in highly valued skill groups that are haemorrhaging from our talent pool? What is the Government’s footprint, designed to improve the quality of teaching and thus provide Jamaicans with better access to education? Regardless, we need a national focus on understanding the root cause of the brain drain, make bold steps to mitigate the loss of our most valued assets and commit to this assignment for the long term. The future of the Jamaican economy and the pride and engagement of Jamaicans in the workforce depends on it. Complacency is not an option.
Jackie Cuthbert of English and Jamaican nationality, is an HR strategist and consultant with over 25 years experience working in an international environment at the Executive and Board levels.