Monday, August 09, 2010

Brain drain

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

What will it take for people to sit up and get worked up about the dire consequences of the brain drain phenomenon? For now, canceled airline flights and faulty weather forecasts.

We’ve been grappling with the brain drain phenomenon since the early seventies. The problem was that it seemed no one really thought all those grim predictions that experts warned us about would really come to pass. We’ve been losing our best nurses, doctors, engineers, and information technology experts to other countries for many years, but so what, there were more where they came from; or at least that was the general belief. We were all so confident of our general ability to churn out globally competitive human resources.

Besides, what was so bad about the fact that our best people were getting better jobs and superior pay scales abroad? Hah, we get bragging rights for being the “preferred” nationality in terms of labor import. And even better, our overseas Filipino workers get to send home remittances that insulate the national economy from the gyrations wrought by global economic forces.

Now we are starting to hurt. And hurt badly. Our airlines are hobbling and the planes of our national flag carrier cannot fly because our pilots are joining foreign airlines supposedly because they are being offered double, even triple what they are currently receiving in compensation. Our weather stations are severely hampered by lack of competent geologists also presumably because other countries dangle superior compensation and work conditions.

But the hurts and aches brought about by the brain drain are also prevalent elsewhere although in less alarming ways.

Most school administrators are bewailing the dearth of really competent English and science teachers—our ability to produce quality teachers has not caught up with the demand abroad. Only the sick, the really old, or the really patriotic have remained in the country. Why, I recently discovered through Facebook that most of my batchmate COCOFED scholars are working abroad!

Industries are hard put filling their manpower needs particularly for IT and accounting posts. I know for a fact that most banks are in desperate need and programmers and database administrators for many years now (anyone who knows of any database administrators who are looking for better jobs holler at me, please). Industry has a long list of job openings created by the continuing exodus of workers abroad that it is unable to fill simply because there is a dearth of qualified candidates.

All together, for the nth time: We need strategic and comprehensive solutions to the brain drain problem that has been causing headaches for quite sometime now. But will the current discussion on the ominous situation caused by the brain drain finally get our leaders to do just that? I doubt it. Sad, but I really doubt it.

For instance, I am alarmed that the current discussions about the Philippine Airlines imbroglio have been limited to just two factors: Compensation and labor relations issues. I have no doubt that these two factors are critical. I also agree that certain dynamics of the current PAL problem is best left for its management and labor groups to settle. However, it would be myopic for anyone to think that the PAL problem is not symptomatic of the larger problems besetting this country.

I am aware that compensation levels in this country are not at par with those in other countries. It was cute, but certainly embarrassing when the President of the Republic of the Philippines brandished his first paycheck all in the amount of P63,002.17 on public television because we all know that’s a ridiculously paltry payment for the kind of headaches the post brings. I don’t know what the bright boys at the Palace was trying to achieve with that stunt but if the message was to make people feel guilty for jumping ship because of money issues, I think it is safe to assume that the message got lost in translation. The general reaction was one of skepticism. Some thought he didn’t need the salary anyway because his family owns a hacienda or because he can get more from other means and sources, if you get the drift.

But really, it is simplistic to imagine that compensation is the only factor that is causing the brain drain. At the very least, it makes Filipino human resource mukhang pera (roughly, only concerned about money). Oh please, there’s a whole ton of social costs associated with the overseas Filipino workers phenomenon that no amount of money can compensate for and everybody knows that —the pilots and geologists in particular. I am willing to bet that most of the geologists left because of the sorry state of weather forecasting technology in the country. The compensation factors were good sweeteners but there are a whole lot of static around the issue of employees leaving their employers.

Money is important and it might be one of the factors, but it cannot be the only, nay, the central factor in the discussion. It’s not as if industry—and government—can easily triple salaries to bring them at par with those in other countries anyway.

We need better solutions—ones that provides effective balance between firefighting efforts and long-term solutions.

This is why the national organization of human resource management professionals that I am part of, the People Management Association of the Philippines, has been strongly advocating for almost five years the development of a national human resource agenda which should map out a national strategy for managing and developing the only sustainable resource this country has left which is people. PMAP has developed a framework that government or Congress can use as benchmark but sadly, it seems not everyone is totally convinced yet of the need for such a strategic solution.

The brain drain problem, the mismatch between what academe produces and what industry needs, the overabundance of students in nursing schools and the dismal number of enrollees in geology and other natural science courses, the de-skilling of Filipino workers (e.g., doctors settling for nursing jobs or teachers working as domestic helpers), among others—all these require a more comprehensive and strategic solution. I’ve said this before and I am going to say this again, people are only lasting source of competitive advantage left. All our other resources are gone and the few that are left are also being depleted every minute. What we have left is people and we better have a more proactive strategy to manage or harness this resource.

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