S.O.S.! Brains Draining in the Caribbean

Publicado el 17 de julio, 2012 | 1 comentarios | Archivado en : , , , ,

Although not alone in the world in experiencing the phenomenon, countries of the Caribbean are winners when it comes to “brain drain”. Latin America and the Caribbean have shown the highest annual growth rates in higher skilled migration: 11 out of 100 workers with tertiary education reside outside the region and migration from this area represents around 25 percent of the total stock of migrants in OECD countries. For the specific case of the Caribbean, most recent data shows that approximately 40 percent of skilled workers (defined as labor with 11 or more years of study ) migrated to OECD countries in 2000.

The paradox for Caribbean countries is that this comes at a time when there is an ongoing debate about how to increase school enrollment. In the context of the Caribbean, the problem is perhaps better explained not by a lack of access to education, but instead by understanding that there might be an excess supply of high skilled workers in an economic structure highly dependent on tourism. How can the phenomenon of “brain drain” in the Caribbean context be explained and what can be done to address it?

The Caribbean has seen an increase in the number of individuals with tertiary education (for the countries for which data are available, tertiary education shows an upward trend). In countries like Jamaica, education enrolment at this level has increased from 19 percent in 2003 to 29 percent in 2010. For Guyana, the corresponding figure for the same time period has risen from 7 to 12 percent. But despite a rise in tertiary education and a decrease in youth unemployment, in Jamaica for example youth unemployment was 25.9 percent in 2008. For Trinidad and Tobago, the corresponding figure in the same year was 10.5, while the latest available information for the Bahamas places this number at 18.9 percent in 2007. For these countries, the percentage of unemployment with tertiary education in the corresponding years represents 3.9 percent (Jamaica), 5.19 percent (Trinidad and Tobago), and 9.39 percent (Bahamas) of total unemployment. This number is comparatively lower than in other countries of the region, such as Dominican Republic and Peru, where unemployment with tertiary education in 2008 was 18 and 37 percent respectively.

In addition, but not less significantly so, the Caribbean remains the most tourism-dependent region in the world, and the industry for tourism and travel, which has grown exponentially since the 1950s, is the largest source of foreign exchange and employment. Earnings from tourism account for approximately 25 per cent of the Caribbean’s GDP, but the number varies in some islands. Additionally, five countries from the Caribbean are ranked in the global top 20 regarding the percentage of total employment that is related directly or indirectly to the industry. As Figure 1 illustrates, the total travel and tourism contributions to employment for individual countries, such as Jamaica and Saint Lucia were 24 and 42.1 percent in 2011, respectively. And if a closer look is taken at the case of Jamaica, figures indicate that in 2011 the country received a total of 1.9 million tourists, the highest in the region of the Caribbean.


Figure 1. Illustrates contribution of travel and tourism to GDP and employment for the region and in select countries

 Source: Authors’ elaboration base on the World Travel and Tourism Council report (WTTC), 2011


One of the consequences of an economy so deeply dependent on tourism is that it creates a low demand for high skilled workers because most jobs created in this sector are informal. In the Caribbean context, this means that low demand for such individuals has resulted in their isolation from the labor market and migration, the latter constituting an issue associated to youth unemployment and perhaps one of its most noticeable effects.

This factor could be associated to the high level of brain drain of the region that exceeds 40 percent, meaning that almost half of individuals with tertiary education emigrate (see Figure 2). In fact, one of the particularities of the Caribbean case is the importance of its skilled migration, which accounts for 6 percent of total skilled stock in countries of the OECD and constitutes 9.2 percent of those residing in North America. Accordingly, thirteen countries of the Caribbean are ranked among the 20 countries with the highest skilled migration rates and seven occupy leading positions, with Guyana, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Vincent and Haiti reflecting rates above 80 percent.


Figure 2. Illustrates the percentage of high skilled migration rates for select countries of the Caribbean and Latin America.

Source: Author’s elaboration based on Frédéric Docquier and Maurice Schiff, “Measuring Skilled Emigration Rates: The Case of Small States” and Michel Beine et al., “Measuring International Skilled Migration: New Estimates Controlling for Age of Entry


Under this scenario, there are two problems that need to be addressed: placing a halt on the phenomenon popularly known as “brain drain”, and bringing skilled, highly qualified individuals back because qualified brains are always important for the development of countries. In proposing solutions, should one start thinking about introducing changes to the structure of the economy so that it makes room for the increasingly educated population, or instead, should people be provided with education opportunities on the basis of available jobs?

Well, maybe it is time to innovate. Traditionally, policies undertaken to address issues of unemployment have targeted supply by providing internships and training, but none of the measures specifically target individuals with a higher level of education, even though the problem often originates from the demand side (e.g. there are not enough jobs for certain professions).

In this context, thinking outside the box is a must. One possibility would be perhaps to create incentives for the return of skilled individuals by providing jobs in the public sector, or to target job creation in the Caribbean’s natural niche: tourism. The discussions of Rio +20, where the important contribution of tourism to sustainable development was recognized, opened the door to some ideas. Participants encouraged investment in eco-tourism and cultural tourism by facilitating access to finance for small and medium enterprises. In addition, incentives could be provided for large tourism-related industries established in the Caribbean. For example, if a significant portion of chain hotels are foreign owned, why not provide them with extra incentives to hire skilled managers from the Caribbean?


 What policies do you think should be created? We would like your opinion.

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Una Respuesta a “S.O.S.! Brains Draining in the Caribbean”

  1. catherine dice:

    why not think of investing in green economy / renewable energies and the technology relating to these.

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