The Pain of the Brain Drain
16 Dec 2015 by Qadir Saheed
“Wow that sounds interesting!” “That sounds very complicated” “What do you exactly learn and do?” “What can you do with that degree” “Which companies in Sri Lanka will hire you?” “Why did you come back to Sri Lanka?”
These are some of the most common questions and statements that I encounter whenever someone asks me about my educational and professional background.
While it could definitely be annoying at times to continuously keep explaining this to people, it does reveal a very important underlying socio-economic problem that many of us are currently facing. While our nation is finding time to recover and achieve a sense of reconciliation after decades of civil conflict, there is a greater threat that looms in its face. This threat is one that may seem irrelevant and invisible to the majority, however this it what makes it all the more dangerous. The future of this country greatly depends on the current and its emerging workforce. The fact of the matter is that there is an ever growing population of young minds who find themselves wanting to use their skills to pursue careers in various industries. However, are there opportunities available for them within the country currently, and if not, are there policies being set in place or steps being taken to do so?
These are two of the most important questions that should be asked at first, instead of pointing fingers at each other and debating who is to be blamed for the lack of such policies and opportunities. Both policy makers and corporates need to take initiative and responsibility. For the past half century, the postcolonial mind-set resulted in most people choosing to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer or banker. This mindset, outlook and train of thought are long gone. Youth and school leavers want to be different and make a significant contribution to the country’s post war era. They set out on their journeys, by pursuing degrees in fields such as aerospace, renewable energy, innovation, investment banking, motorsport, fashion, film etc. Some of these industries are emerging in Sri Lanka and others are non-existent. Many of them are essential industries if Sri Lanka wants to be recognized in the world map as a pioneer.
Essentially you have some of the smartest, brightest people leaving the country and spending a lot of money studying abroad, only to return and find that there are no jobs available for them in their chosen fields, nor are there many companies who are willing to make use of their skill sets in Sri Lanka. So the only option left is to then leave the country in search of jobs outside which are relevant to their respective fields and at the same time obtain a better salary in comparison to what is available in Sri Lanka. As this continues to happen over a period of time the country will be faced with a crisis where the “brains” of the nation are not contributing anything to the country or its future, and there is a huge flow of cash out of the country. According to the Sri Lanka National Human Development Report (NHDR) 2014 on Youth and Development, studies have suggested that youth consider migration a serious option for improving their lives. A statistic from 2011 shows that 87,509 youth between the ages of 20 and 29 migrated for employment. In addition 3,615 below the age of 20 also migrated. These two age groups accounted for 33 percent of all people migrating for employment. Since 2011, this percentage has grown significantly. The National Youth Survey (2013) found that 88% of respondents preferred foreign employment in a professional or skilled category.
Australia, New Zealand and Canada are hot beds for Sri Lankan prodigies to move to. In addition to this there are emerging markets such as Germany, Africa and the UAE that quality Sri Lankan talent have started to explore. It goes without saying this issue needs addressing.
Taking my own personal journey as an example, I ventured into aerospace engineering, which is to do with the designing, building and testing of aircraft from scratch. Upon graduation I found that the scope for employment in Sri Lanka is non-existent, and that the nations which do have industries within them could not employ me due to nationality issues. My only option was to improvise and market my unique niche skills to get a job in Sri Lanka, fortunately there were a couple of companies that were willing to think differently and make decisions outside the box.
If policy makers and corporates could see the potential of the workforce and adequately have opportunities available for them, the end effect could quite literally take Sri Lanka to new heights.