By Pepper Marcelo
There was a time when many of the jobs Filipinos could land abroad were as maids, seamen and manual laborers. Over time, more and more of our skilled and trained workers have joined the exodus for higher wages and a better life.
Not too long ago, the mass exodus of nurses left local hospitals and the country’s health system in disarray, although the situation has been reversed in recent years (there is now an oversupply of nurses) as the global demand for medical workers slowed down. But the overseas demand for other occupations such as scientists, engineers, IT professionals, accountants and even teachers remains, tempered only in the past three years by the global financial crisis.
In the face of the unabated brain drain, one would think that Filipinos have come to accept the phenomenon as a fact of life, even a desirable one for many well-paid migrant workers. It took a triple whammy in August to revive the national debate on the seriousness of the problem.
First to shake the country was the news last August that 25 pilots of the Philippine Airlines have flown overseas, particularly the Middle East and Asia where they were offered nearly triple their salary at PAL. The mass resignation forced PAL to cancel a number of their flights.
A few weeks later, another mild tremor followed. The country’s weather bureau – the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) – landed in the news for two related reasons. First, it failed to make an accurate forecast of an oncoming storm, earning a presidential reprimand. President Benigno Aquino III later fired the chief weather forecaster, Dr. Prisco Nilo, in the aftermath of Typhoon Basyang’s fury that left dozens dead. (Dr. Nilo opted for early retirement and left for Australia last Nov. 2.)
The second reason for PAG-ASA’s sudden notoriety was the announcement that the agency had lost 24 of its key personnel, many of them veteran weather forecasters, who had resigned to join the state weather agency of Dubai. The shortage of experienced personnel was one reason cited by the agency why bungled its job on ‘Basyang’.
The third whammy was the announcement by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources that 83 of its geologists had left for overseas work over the past three years, hindering government programs for mapping earthquake faults and mineral resources.
To be sure, government officials are fully aware of the negative impact of the OFW phenomenon on the local economy. After all, it has been the official policy of every administration since the 1970s to export labor as a means of easing the domestic unemployment situation and at the same time generate foreign exchange. Today, between nine to 10 million OFWs are toiling in nearly a hundred countries. They remitted US$17.3 billion in 2009, accounting for more than 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
The brain drain syndrome has proved to be a tough nut to crack. While everyone agrees that the labor export policy should only be a stop-gap measure, there are no easy answers on how to minimize, if not stop, the brain drain.
Likewise, there seems to be no unanimity on how serious the problem is. Some are already pressing the panic button. But there are those who claim that there is really no “widespread brain drain,” but a general mismanagement by government of the working talent that we have.
“We have so many that have ‘brains,’ but they’re either unemployed or employed in the wrong industry,” says Loreto Soriano, executive director of the Federated Associations of Manpower Exporters (FAME), Inc. “It is not true that most of the OFWs are professionals and skilled workers. Pilots and forecasters are very small in numbers.”
Data from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) support Soriano’s contention. POEA statistics show that new or first-time OFWs during the last decade numbered about 300,000, with only 20% of them categorized as skilled, highly skilled and professionals. The rest are labeled as low-skilled and unskilled, including domestic helpers. “If we relate to the number of college/university graduates every year that averaged 900,000 during the last ten years, there is no brain drain,” argues Soriano.
According to the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), in 2007 there were more than 600,000 enrollees in Nursing, and more than 500,000 in Hotel and Restaurant Management (HRM) and Information Technology (IT), but only 40,000 were enrolled in Engineering and related disciplines.
The unabated mass production of nursing graduates has inevitably led to an oversupply of nurses. Today, there are more than 200,000 licensed nurses who cannot land overseas jobs either due to a soft demand or lack of the required hospital work experience. Local hospitals, which experienced a severe nurse shortage about five years ago, are turning down a long list of applicants, some of them willing to pay just to get experience.
“Thus, we see tens of thousands of nurses, engineers, HRM specialists, Information Technologists and teachers employed in call centers, Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), sprawling malls and food-chains like Jollibee, McDonald’s and Kentucky,” observes Soriano.
He blames skills mismatch as the culprit, pointing to the failure of the educational system to produce the right graduates needed by the labor market. He notes that despite a huge domestic workforce, thousands of jobs – mostly in technical and vocational fields – remain unfilled due to lack skilled personnel. As a result, a number of factories and light and heavy industries have closed down or moved overseas.
“Local industries during the past 30 years, they are gone. We practically do not have manufacturing, garment, leather goods, cannery and fabrication industries anymore,” laments Soriano.
In its place is the Service Sector, which provides more than half – almost 63% – of the nation’s entire economic output. But Soriano says, “This sector does not provide permanent employment, but only contractualization.” These lopsided contractual arrangements for the supply of workers have also become a factor for migration, says former labor undersecretary Susan Ople. “Contractual workers subsist on five-to-six-month job contracts while a legally deployed overseas Filipino worker has a guaranteed two-year contract with a fixed and higher salary,” she said.
According to Myrna Asuncion, an assistant director at the National Economic and Development Authority, the government has been seeking ways to upgrade salaries and benefits. “But local salaries can only go up by so much before they start hurting the competitiveness of local industries,” she told Agence France-Presse. “We want to provide employment opportunities in the Philippines but there are some sectors that say salaries are already too high.”
Soriano suggests that the government conduct a reality check of the present economic system. “Both government and private sector business must realize that our economy is sick with what I call the ‘Philippine Syndrome,’” he says. Also called the “Dutch Disease,” it results in a high remittance growth rate, leading to stronger peso and increased imports and government debt, which ultimately discourages domestic production, says Soriano. This must be tempered or stopped, he adds, otherwise we will have a “jobless growth-economy,” which encourages smuggling and promotes corruption.
Soriano says monetary authorities should review their policies, noting that a strong peso leads to a rise in cost of local products, which in turn lead consumers to opt for cheaper imported goods to the detriment of local businessmen and workers. He suggests a national economic policy that is balanced, inward-looking and nationalistic in order to support our basic manufacturing, agricultural, light and heavy industries. “That will provide permanent employment to our graduates, thereby creating a large pool of qualified workers for local and overseas jobs,” he says.